Agriculture is one of the largest global industries yet to be disrupted. Less than a decade ago who would have recognized the names Moderna? General Assembly? Alibaba? Netflix? Grubhub? Square or Venmo? AirBnB?
We’re a conservative bunch, prone to the belief that we’re ‘different’; that somehow our way of life is immune to the global forces that are reshaping finance, retail, food, finance and hoteliers. We’d rather fight about a faux war than lead a discussion on innovation; rather celebrate a (mythical) independence than the (real) interdependence with the world that surrounds us.
Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a regional gathering in Memphis, ‘Davos on the Delta’ and while I didn’t expect that my experience would prompt a Pols diary, it has. The Mississippi Delta region is one not unlike many others across the county: a region searching for the keys to its future; a region drowning in resources and opportunities. A region with a new crop of leaders committed to a big vision.
The Delta region has over 13 million acres of farmland, land almost exclusively devoted to the production of commodity crops: corn, soybeans, rice and cotton. Lying beneath the Memphis region is an aquifer containing our 5 trillion gallons of fresh water. Home to FedEx, world-wide, overnight deliveries of any product are a given.
The conference was based on a series of ‘what-if’ scenarios. Designed to be an intimate setting, just 200 people comprised of farmers, investors, regional leaders and agricultural start-ups were in attendance. Their questions: how do we take our existing resources and become the Silicon Valley of sustainable ag production? How do we take advantage of what we know of the shifting marketplace, driven in large part by millennial buying patterns. How do we adopt cutting-edge technology and entice outside investment into a sector not known for innovation?
They were absolutely asking the right questions.
The conference highlighted a number of statistics about our future:
- 2/3 of millennial will pay a premium for good food. Because of this, new platform models are emerging. New entrants in this space aren’t improving the system, they’re changing the system
- Sustainability is now a brand asset
- The belief that ‘food is medicine’ is no longer a fringe idea; there is now a bi-partisan working group in DC devoted to this agenda
- Indoor farming may be the largest, single opportunity in the entire agricultural sector. We haven’t even scratched the surface on new food markets, but to do so will require a serious departure from our current Farm Bill platform. There are over 30,000 edible plant species on the planet; our food system today relies on about 30. 66% of our calories come from five species and 99% of global calories come from 0.1% of all plant diversity
- We are using 30% more fresh water than we are replenishing annually; 70% of all freshwater is used by agriculture
Whether we in the broader agricultural community lead or are drug into the future, there is one thing for certain: if you don’t like (and embrace) change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.
As I mentioned in my lead-off paragraph, agriculture is the largest global industry that has yet to be disrupted. The facts are that we’re headed to a consumer-focused agriculture that will deliver both demands and opportunities to those willing to make the leap. Farming has traditionally been organized vertically when what we need to address our current challenges are horizontal solutions. Case-in-point: the Investment Corporation of Dubai has committed $220 billion to a fund that addresses food security; Wal-Mart has committed to eliminating a gigaton of carbon out of their supply chain. Target is demanding sustainable cotton by 2022 and Tyson will reduce their emission by 30% over the next five years. While my fellow 51st-staters may laugh at the climate goals, the world is moving on. Those who want the opportunity to participate in such supply chains will change their behavior.
Agriculture is also the least digitized of all US sectors. As the adoption of technology increases, so will the disruption. Like our energy sector, the future is best served by small, smart, distributed models. Technology will also lead to specialization. Remember the old days when your coffee choices were Folgers or Maxwell? When you could count your cereal choices on two hands?
Innovation in our sector will flow to the points of least resistance, to eco-systems where farmers, land grant universities, impact funds, private industry and government are locked arm-in-arm to convert their natural and human resources into new jobs and enhanced economic activity. They’ll play smart, they’ll be nimble and they’ll be committed to holistic approaches. They’ll enable technology democratization; ideas too small for the Goliaths but widely adopted in distributed models.
While this conference was held in Memphis, it could as well have been conducted in (Ft.) Morgan. What will our future look like twenty years from now? Will coal-fired power still power our aquifer pumps to grow corn to feed a steer? Or will solar and wind power energize aquaculture systems using a fraction of the resources to produce a pound of protein? Will greenhouses replace the large swaths of farmland across the plains and those acres devote themselves to the role of ‘carbon sinks’? Will we be a major exporter of food, or the technology to grow food? With our resources could we become the Netherlands of the Plains? Will pivot irrigation be a thing of the past, replaced by precision drip systems? Will our small, rural communities, like Memphis, recognize the generational opportunities in this space and re-invent themselves as a 21st-century hub? Will we embrace the idea that good public policy and investments in research will drive this necessary transition?
Or, will we be asking 20 years from now: ‘Who moved my cheese’?