“Farm-to-Fork” is Redefining Ag-Tech Innovation and Sustainability

January 12th, 2020

The 2019 THRIVE Ag-Tech conference, hosted by Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley, was appropriately themed "Advancing the Future of Agriculture and Food through Innovation".

CSIRO US hosted a number of Australian scientists who work in food and ag-tech research. The theme of the event was the world is challenged to increase food productivity while at the same time preserving the environment upon which we all depend.

According to Jonathan Hua of the THRIVE Ag-Tech Accelerator, “With indoor farming, drone software, ag commerce, genome and microbial tech, all competing for investors’ attention, we’re looking at several companies over the next year that has a high chance of hitting $1B+ valuations.”

Ag-Tech has historically been underrepresented in popular media headlines overshadowed by other technologies. That is about to change.

The sector is experiencing tremendous transformation and disruption from farms to retail outlets. The supply chain is being disintermediated by multiple forces of consolidation, vertical integration by retail brands and consumer demand for full transparency, at their fingertips, of their food supply chain.

Beth Ford, the conference keynote and CEO of Land O’Lakes Inc., pointed to technology as a catalyst for growth as well as its disruptor. Two drivers are behind the rise in Food-Ag innovation: A mindset shift toward technology as a path to increased efficiency, and high profitability pressures. The end goal, according to Walt Duflock, Managing Partner at THRIVE Ag-Tech is to achieve “acre-by-acre profit-and loss solution with all inputs, including labor, equipment, applications, seeds, and water, counted automatically and compared to past years with recommendations and notification of outliers delivered right to the farmer in an easy-to-consume way that they can act on.”

The industry is not there yet. Some of today’s most impactful technologies are IoT (Internet of Things), edge and cloud computing. Advances have been made in plant, field and equipment data collection. Artificial intelligence is improving the inability to integrate vast disparate data sources and provide actionable insights at the field level. Predictive analytics and simulations are becoming increasingly sophisticated to help farmers shift to data-driven farming that hedge risks while increasing efficiency.

Farmers realize that they need to broaden their ecosystems to more effectively differentiate themselves. Technology enables farmers to interact with consumers to better understand their preferences and adjust their production accordingly. Consumers equally want to know where their food is sourced, where and how it was processed, transported, etc. Ford calls this ‘Farm-to-Fork’ and it highlights the role sustainability plays in food production. Consumers expect their food sources – from farms to retail – to be sustainable and are making purchase decisions accordingly.

Sustainability is increasingly seen as a “right to do business”. Ford suggests that Food companies would be wise to re-evaluate their marketing to make sure their value propositions and packaging effectively communicate how their actions are addressing extreme climate disruption. Brands that do this well will see consumer trust increase.

For the family farmer, volatility, uncertainty and change increase the pressure on them. It’s hard for farmers to survive let alone adopt innovative technology when they lack the basics – broadband, quality education, healthcare, and access to capital. Recognizing these fundamental roadblocks is motivating ecosystem partners, government agencies, local communities and Ag-Tech vendors to address them in creative ways. Driven by the need to continually improve efficiency, new service-based business models are being introduced that reduce farmer capital investments by sharing infrastructure such as drones and robots for acreage management to monetizing by-products like capturing and transporting methane from livestock farms to fuel city buses.

For THRIVE’s audience of agribusiness leaders, investors, Ag-Tech and Food-Tech startups and growers from around the world, the message from the conference was clear – collaborating on innovation across country borders will help the industry feed a growing population while preserving the environment.

CSIRO US facilitates relationships with US companies, government agencies and academic institutions to connect Australian researchers with USA projects to expedite mutually beneficial opportunities for scientific advancements in food agriculture, space, water conservation, wildfire and smart cities. Partnering in open innovation not only brings deep scientific research competencies to the table but also deep experience with a wide range of real-world problems.