Mar 18, 2016

Reimagining Big Agriculture and Food

Today’s industrialized food system, designed to put food on everyone’s table at any expense, is failing us. While the developing world is challenged with the basics of reliable and safe food supply, the industrialized countries have all the food they need, just not the right food.
Let’s start with what we know. Humanity’s focus on short-term, easy-to-understand concepts in agriculture, like yield per acre and price per product, has resulted in a monolithic agricultural system. Here, the idea of scarcity led the architects of today’s system to seek out maximum efficiency through high crop yields. But we now know this came at a price: food with low nutritional value that promotes environmental degradation. This system is not designed for the long haul.
It’s time to move on and reimagine our food systems in both the industrialized and developing world. We can transition to precision, data-driven farming that helps us understand why a crop is not growing and address the problem with a targeted solution like spraying one row rather than an entire field. We can empower farmers with actionable, data-driven insights that come straight from the fields and not from hunches. Food waste can be minimized as food delivery companies work to create kits that include healthy ingredients in exact proportions. And consumers can take control of how they prepare their foods, personalized to their micro-biome, as new kitchen appliances with integrated technologies like 3D printing and robotics get more sophisticated to make fresh food for us with fresh ingredients. Anyone wishing to cook a healthy, delicious and fresh meal will not have to think twice.
Such examples of reimagination are being complemented by innovations in technology. No longer do we need to rely on a cow for milk and meat — instead we can use custom designed microbes to produce milk proteins and literally “grow” meat. No longer do we need to poison our soil with fertilizer that runs off farmland and pollutes nearby waterways — instead we can use our understanding of soil composition to introduce bugs that create a healthy soil environment. And why should our crops be grown the same way they have been for millennia? We now have the technology to grow vertical crops and even crops without soil, increasing the per acre yields radically by moving in the vertical axis.
We have to reimagine our current food system and create one where clean and nutritious food is delivered to savvy consumers who are demanding more than just a meal — they want to know the story behind how something got on their plate. And many are willing to pay a bit more to support new entrants working to reimagine today’s food systems.
Innovators in Silicon Valley are used to addressing such challenges, so late last year we invited a diverse set of leaders with a collective “doer mindset” to discuss how we could disrupt today’s unsustainable and unhealthy food ecosystem.
Here is what we are up against: five years ago, Chinese officials sounded the alarm that they would be hard pressed to meet rising food demands thanks to their overworked, polluted and artificially fertilized soil. Meanwhile, agriculture’s thirst for water at any cost has resulted in dwindling water tables that risk our ability to increase food production precisely when it is most needed. In India, McKinsey predicts the country’s national water supply will fall 50% below demand by 2030 in a country where 54% of the population already faces high to extremely high water stress.
Despite all these challenges, today’s food monoculture does manage to provide plenty of food, but much of it is processed with dangerous levels of salt, sugar, and chemicals. Researchers at the University of California San Francisco have performed so much research on the role of sugar in the modern Western diet that they were able to say conclusively in 2012 that sugar is the “primary culprit” behind a worldwide health crisis. Beyond sugar, some food is downright toxic: the Food and Drug Administration came under fire when it was blamed for allowing carcinogenic arsenic to make its way into roughly 70% of chicken in U.S. supermarkets.
Consumers for years have been voicing their opinions through their wallets for a transition away from today’s food system. According to The Organic Trade Association, consumer demand for organic food in the United States has grown by double-digits every year since the 1990s, with organic sales increasing tenfold from $3.6 billion in 1997 to over $39 billion in 2014. People are so willing to pay higher prices for pesticide and antibiotic-free products that supply of organic foods continues to fall short of demand. Organic food sales currently make up 4% of total food sales, but acreage devoted to organic agriculture is less than 1% of total U.S. cropland. This is a system out of touch with producing the right food.
Clearly, our narrow mindset around food has led us into a crisis. Companies and even whole civilizations have failed as a result of their inability to divert attention when and where necessary. We recognize the challenges we face are complex and systemic in nature but we know the time is right for a wholesale re-imagining of how food gets from the farm to the fork.
Bringing about this change will require shifts across the supply chain of our food ecosystem, including farming and inputs, food processing and product development, logistics and delivery, retail and consumers. But players like Obvious Ventures will be there along the way to incentivize large scale reimagining of how food is made and delivered to meet consumer needs and wants in a long-term sustainable way.
This is not an impossible task. Already we are seeing players move away from models based on scarcity and dirty and toward those based on abundance and clean, toward providing people with food that is grown responsibly, distributed affordably, and consumed excitedly.
Our era of abundance is allowing us to transform the science of farming, making it more precise. Farms are becoming data-rich thanks to a network of sensors that collect and exchange real-time information on everything from water use to harvesting. Companies like FarmLogs have created multiple tools such as to track not only aggregate rainfall amounts but also contextualize this data against prior years’ rainfall totals and how such water affected crops. Blue River Technology is making “smart machines for digital agriculture” which can visually characterize each plant and decide which ones are viable and which ones are not. Such a process drastically reduces the amount of chemical inputs needed to generate healthy crop yields.
And once the food is ready to leave the farm there are now plenty of ways to get it to you and your table. Demand for services like UberEATS, Postmates, Blue Apron and Caviar has spurred local food processing, allowing for speedy, real-time delivery so food remains nutritious. Urban Remedy, an organic food company (and one of our portfolio companies), has a goal to make healthy eating easy by processing local, healthy ingredients that are then distributed across multiple channels, including micro retail outlets and online.
Another portfolio company of ours, Beyond Meat, aims to replace animal protein with plant protein. One of Beyond Meat’s latest innovations was to partner with Chef’d, a meal delivery service, to offer plant-based meals to make at home. Such a service not only guarantees consumers a healthy meal, but also cuts down on food waste since only the right amount of ingredients is included.
The best part of all of these innovations is that consumers can now do at home what had previously only been done in large facilities or retail outlets. Nespresso and SodaStream were the first step on a process that will only grow further as 3D printing of food and robot cooks proliferate to help us make healthy food with fresh ingredients. For example, Momentum Machines is bringing precision robotics into the Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) space to create cleaner, faster restaurant environments where workers will not need to directly handle food. Consumer demand for organic, local or paleo meals will continue to influence the food production system, as innovators create more tools to make such diets easier.
Technology and innovative thinking will also be key in moving to a more sustainable and healthy agricultural system. Innovations are already occurring and laying the groundwork for how and what we eat in the future.
Aerofarms is pioneering the indoor growing of crops independent of soil and the sun. The company instead employs vertical farming to save space and uses a cloth medium on which the seeds grow. Such a system has promise to deliver higher crop yields, year round. Additionally, it will eliminate pesticide use, decrease water use by 95%, and allow for the recycling of crop nutrients that otherwise would harm the environment.
Similarly, Venkatesan Sundaresan, a professor of plant biology and plant sciences at University of California, Davis, is looking at rice to better understand how the nearly quarter-million bacterial species in the rice microbiome affect how the crop grows. Soil microbes in close proximity to plant roots have been shown to promote plant disease suppression and nutrient acquisition, according to Sundaresan. He is looking at both how the microbial community responds when plants face stress and also at the functions of individual bacteria.
Meanwhile, synthetic biology is transforming how we create and input proteins, leveraging a far more efficient metabolic reaction than an entire animal: a single-cell organism. Clara Foods utilizes this technology to make egg alternatives, incorporating yeast fermentation and iterating on techniques that are paralleled in the beer-making process. The result is a product that can replace eggs both as an ingredient in other foods, or potentially as a main dish itself.
Hampton Creek is seeking to make the largest plant database in the world so it can transform how we make everything from cookies to mayonnaise. Its success making and marketing Just Mayo, a vegan mayonnaise, included a legal victory against rival Unilever, the maker of Hellmann’s mayonnaise. The result: Unilever is now making its own vegan mayonnaise to compete.
In order to make all of this the rule and not the exception, we will need, as Michael Pollan put it, a “National Food Policy.” Pollan suggests the next president put forward a call to arms to elevate the discussion about how we get our food. Everyone must understand that they have a choice in determining what gets on their dinner table, and how. Pollan sees a breakdown in government policy, one that has failed to unite all interests around food production.
This will certainly have to change. We need policies that encourage current players to adjust their business models to accommodate the fight against climate change and environmental degradation.
But we also must ensure any future regulatory environment welcomes new entrants and startups who, even from a smaller pedestal, can influence food policy. And no doubt consumers will need to play a role, collaborating with business and government to ensure the food they eat is safe and nutritious.
We all eat food and so we all have a stake in the future of food production. Whether you are a farmer, entrepreneur, or foodie, you play a role in the systems governing food policy. We at Obvious Ventures support #worldpositive companies, firms that are profitable, impactful and make the world a better place. We are excited to play a role in this debate and look forward to hearing about your ideas on the future of food.

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