There is no shortage of commentary and opinions about farming and food. Rightly so. Food matters to personal and public health, and people care about their families and communities. As a farmer and rancher, I’ve long cringed when the opinions about modern farming include descriptions of ‘factory farming’, and disregard for natural resources. But, efficiencies in farming go hand-in-hand with expense reduction, as expenses chase top-line revenues.
However, the truth is that it is in production agriculture’s best interest to protect the resources required to stay in business, and economies of scale and stewardship are often the strongest strategic option. Either way, persistent innovation is a powerful antidote to sustainability challenges, both environmental and economic. So, technology is driving extensive collaboration across sectors – and teamwork by technology developers, industry players, and capital providers is plentiful.
In a year where news is often negative or frightening, I’m eager to share a few examples where food and agriculture is demonstrating the commitment to producing abundant and nutritious food, hand-in-hand with environmental and economic sustainability. In each of these examples, underlying technologies enable the quest for improved sustainability.
- Big data for agriculture: The convergence of data aggregation and analytics had no better test than the global pandemic of 2020. In fact, the intersection of food security and climate change received a huge shout-out on the cover of Time[i] magazine in April 2021. I’ve met with Sara Menker several times, and have been utilizing the important aggregation of global data in platforms such as Gro Intelligence, amongst a small group of highly specialized competitors, for some time. These data platform companies are growing rapidly and they deliver timely data, including predictive analytics to end-users, including financial institutions. Analytics in agriculture is of course done at both the macro and micro level. While understanding global dynamics can precede volatile market fundamentals and pricing, the ability to efficiently gather and crunch detailed data at the farm level is also being addressed by a quality group of on-farm analytics companies.
- Carbon sequestration amongst a gold-rush: Bloomberg’s April 2021 article regarding the carbon credit market ‘Gold Rush’2 showcases how agri-tech firms and commercial interests are identifying the carbon puzzle and determining how to measure and leverage agriculture’s role in carbon sequestration. It’s a balancing act of emerging regulatory incentives, nascent markets for carbon offsets, and discovery.Member-owned cooperative Land O’Lakes has announced various technology partner initiatives to leverage and monetize their members’ carbon sequestration. And, it’s the flow-through to environmental responsibility and food labeling that is encouraging. So, while I can cringe at flippant observations regarding farming by non-farmers, I am thrilled about the urbanite passion for regenerative promise of the cycles of farming.
Consumers deserve transparency and their voice is a meaningful, and this is an opportunity for industry to share information about stewardship. Bloomberg highlights that food companies are recognizing the consumer’s desire to know more, and that tech partnerships are driving better operational efficiencies and transparency. In this way, techies, producers, and businesses throughout the food chain are finding ways to engage with end-users.
- Recycle, reuse, and recycle – In April 2021, California agricultural trucking leader Young’s Commercial Transfer announced alliances with renewable natural gas provider TruStar Energy3. While the technology to capture and deliver pipeline-quality natural gas collected from dairy farms and other sources such as landfills and, waste treatment plants is not new, it’s taken years for the regulatory drivers, infrastructure, and partners to come to fruition.Now Young’s Commercial Transfer, TruStar Energy, Southern California Gas Company, andfood processors have announced implementation of the simple concept. Gas is collected from dairy lagoon digesters, piped to filling stations, and utilized in compressed natural gas (CNG) engines. The engines have recently become robust enough to transport field crops such as tomatoes, carrots, and potatoes to processing plants, and to backhaul the food byproducts back to the dairy cows. At all levels in these collaborations, the reduction of carbon output is a win-win, enabled by technology and teamwork.
I’ve utilized innovation examples that include, but are not limited to digital technologies. The best industry participants are constantly looking for the tools and the partners to improve operations and further their strategic mission.
Constructive criticism and questioning can bring out the best in human innovation. To return to the analogy, the search for alliance and technology solutions is like looking for an antidote to counteract particular challenges. I appreciate a quote from Menker in her recent interview with Time in which she notes a diversity of perspectives and opinions amongst her team. As an independent arbiter of data and information, she says, “It’s best to welcome a diversity of opinion and create a place where tension can be channeled in creative collaborative outcomes.”⁴ I’m encouraged by the magnificent collaboration in the vast food and agriculture landscape, enhanced by a diversity of opinions, and will continue to seek it out and celebrate it.
12021 Time100 Most Influential Companies, April 26, 2021
2The Carbon Market Gold Rush in American Agriculture, Bloomberg Green, April 20, 2021
3Porterville-owned Ag Fleet to Reduce 75% of Carbon Output, The Sun Gazette, April 7, 2021
12021 Time100 Most Influential Companies, April 26, 2021