AgTech 101

Understanding the sustainable agriculture ecosystem

Entrepreneurs, investors, policy-makers, and everyday eaters around the world are becoming increasingly involved in new models for producing, distributing, & consuming food. See why and how in our 8-part series below.

#1 – Population Growth, Land Use, Food Insecurity

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With the global population expected to reach 9-10 billion by 2050, new agricultural strategies are needed in order to produce significantly more food on roughly the same amount of arable land, all while using fewer of the world's precious resources - namely fossil fuels and water. Currently, agriculture accounts for 70% of global freshwater usage, and is also one of the biggest contributors to freshwater contamination. Even now, more than 1 in 10 people around the world suffer from hunger and nearly 1 in 3 are malnourished. Meanwhile, 1/3 of all food we produce is wasted. Finally, in the last 40 years, 1/3 of our arable land has been lost to erosion or pollution.

#2 – Climate & Health

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Our current food system is also a significant cause of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions - up to 33% of total - and deforestation - up to 80%. The release of these gases, coupled with the loss of carbon-sequestering forest land, is accelerating the rate at which changes to the Earth's climate occur - changes that are already causing major challenges for farmers around the world. Furthermore, systematic forces that incentivize the production of commodity crops and processed foods have led to shifting diet and consumption patterns in a number of countries. This, in turn, has created a costly public health crisis with the rise of obesity, diabetes, and preventable cardiovascular diseases, which tend to affect poorer communities more so than wealthier ones.

#3 – Designing Sustainable Solutions

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By 2050, it's estimated that almost 3 billion more people will live in cities, a 75% increase from 2015. That means urban sprawls will continue to displace key farmland near cities; deforestation will persist; infrastructure and distribution systems originally designed for smaller populations will face extreme pressures; and the physical & societal divisions between where we produce food and where we consume it will grow even larger. That is, unless we are able to redesign the entire system and implement sustainable solutions.

#4 – General Theses for Technology Application in Agriculture

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So how can we grow more, using less, and collect the data needed to refine and prove such a process? Enter: technology. Between 2012 and 2015 alone, investment in the AgTech sector increased nearly ten-fold, from $0.5 to $4.6 billion, according to AgFunder's annual report.

Article
Why We Need Technology as the Key Ingredient in Our Food via Peter Diamandis / Huffington Post
Article
The Future of Agriculture via The Economist

#5 – The Case for Controlled Environment Agriculture

#5 – The Case for Controlled Environment Agriculture

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Imagine, in a rapidly shifting climate, you could receive a guaranteed protection for your farm against such unpredictable changes. That's just one of the many advantages farmers get from growing their crops indoors. With swiftly advancing technology, these farmers are now also capable of controlling the specific inputs that affect their plants' growth - in many cases from the touch of a screen. And with more focus being put on yield (producing more food per acre or square foot) due to land constraints, vertical farming has become a quickly growing method of choice - growth that is expected to continue. Meanwhile, hydroponics - which encompasses any operation in which plants are grown in nutrient-rich solutions rather than soil and is commonly practiced indoors - was estimated to be a $21.4 billion industry in 2015.

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What Are Novel Farming Systems? via AgFunderNews
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The Vertical Farm via The New Yorker

#6 – The Case for Regenerative Soil-Based Agriculture

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There's another case to be made - that our best solution to these challenges may lie not in avoiding the soil, but in rebuilding it. Regenerative agriculture is a method of farming that makes the health of the soil - and the ecosystem of micro-organisms within it - its primary focus. In doing so, farmers can properly pull carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it in the earth, retain water more effectively, increase biodiversity, and create more fertile soil. This in turn means less dependence on costly inputs - financially and environmentally - such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. But is regenerative farming necessarily anti-technology? Our belief is that, no, it most certainly is not. In fact, the gathering of data has been crucial in identifying which methods are most "regenerative" - as the example of TomKat Ranch shows in the corresponding article from AgFunderNews.

#7 – Food Choice, Diet, & Consumer Transparency

#7 – Food Choice, Diet, & Consumer Transparency

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In recent years, consumers have played a pivotal role in advocating for increased transparency as it pertains to their food purchases. And more transparency is a good thing, but it can also lead to added complexity - just deciding on which type of egg to buy, for example, has become an arduous task (see here or here for guidance). Focusing on diet choices - particularly protein sources - can be a simpler place to start. Beef production is especially resource-dependent, requiring 20x more land and emitting 20x as much GHG than common plant-based protein sources (though as you may have learned in #6, sustainable methods for raising cattle do exist). Additionally, a major 2016 study found an association between high animal-protein intake and mortality rate. And yet, global demand for beef is still projected to grow by a whopping 95% by 2050. The public health and environmental consequences of this demand would be devastating. Either a significant diet shift, or a monumental change in livestock raising practices, is needed to prevent this.

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Sustainable Diets: What You Need to Know in 12 Chargs via World Resources Institute
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Diet and Global Climate Change via Science Daily

#8 – The Innovators

#8 – The Innovators

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Who are the companies leading this agricultural revolution? CB Insights recently released this helpful illustration, in which they plotted the roles of more than 100 companies currently altering the traditional operations of a farm. But in order for our entire agricultural system to move in a healthier, more environmentally-sustainable direction, it will take the work of organizations on all ends of the food spectrum. Those focused on driving consumer demand toward plant-based over animal-based protein, for example, could have huge implications for the way new methods of farming continue to develop. See below for key resources identifying some of the most innovative organizations, across a wide variety of categories, that will help to shape the future of sustainable ag.