This article is a response/commentary to What Silicon Valley Doesn’t Understand About Agriculture
Great articles are the ones that call you to action, challenge your ideas and/or refresh you with new knowledge. I think this is true for this article. Look, I am writing a response to it!
The main driver of the article is the recent trend of Vertical Farming, and its adoption from Silicon Valley Companies. I will respond to several statements done thru the article.
“…This implies and inherent inefficiency in both current food production and its distribution chains.”
This statement suffers from the same issue that it attacks. It assumes that the current food production and distribution chains are efficient. In the US, the amount of food that is discarded in production, transportation and commercialization amounts to more than one third of what is cultivated. That cannot be an efficient model. Is better than 60% waste, but worse than 10%. What about Input Applications, Soil Health, Ecological Externalities, Processed Foods and Public Health Outcomes? The industrial agriculture was important for the society of the last century, and maybe it made the production of US government subsidized crops more efficient. But, until we: eradicate famine and multiple nutrition related diseases, have a synergistic relationship with nature, and are able to reduce waste to nothing, the food system would require further efficiency updates.
“The truth is, modern agriculture as most people understand it already have the things SV-types desire and crave: massive scale, incredible automation, hyper-efficiency”.
Agriculture is massive in scale because is a basic need for human live, I would compare it to Construction or Education. Those are massive scale areas where innovation is required as well. Also, Industrial agriculture is highly automated for a short list of crops which in result have become the main ingredients in the modern processed food diet. Agriculture is not incredibly automated, corn, wheat, soybeans, rice and a handful other crops are. And hyper-efficiency, well thats an overstatement. We have dead algae zones, erosion, predation of the Amazon, soil depletion, contamination of aquifers, consolidation, and proprietary technology managed by three global corporations. We need more efficiency.
“The average farm size is increasing and has been for quite sometime. As farm size increases, the number of people directly involved in agriculture for their livelihood continues to be exceedingly small (there are only about ~ million farms in the United States). Sophisticated and (and generally physically massive) machines–with varying degrees of automation–have continuously driven the efficiency of a single farmer higher and higher requiring less hand labor and obtaining efficiencies of scale for cost.”
This statement forgets to mention: Government subsidies and long term contracts with suppliers. The US since the Cold War has been directly involved in the production of commodity crops. This is not an open market. It means, that row crop farmers can grow crops at a loss and still have some profits if you take into account the federal programs. This no only happens in the US, but it is one of the main drivers of innovation in this field. A handful of crop are subsidized, and the two main stars – Corn and Soybeans – are the country sweethearts.The greatest breakthroughs of the Industrial agriculture era, are related to this two main crops: Automated Tractors, Planters and Sprayers, Genetical Modified Organisms, Chemical Inputs. The reduction of labor on the farms is not because automation has made it easy, in the contrary, we needed automation because agriculture is not profitable. That’s why we have more consolidation, the reduction of family owned farms and the incredible amount of money that the government hands out to farmers. They need innovation to keep their heads afloat.
“Current agriculture doesn’t need an artificial energy source and the automation that exists today is breathtaking. It is completely reasonable for a single human, with assistance from machines, to comfortably farm 1,000 acres or more of traditional rows crops”
I am not an advocate of Vertical Farming, but an advocate of Smart Farming. Smart Farming is focused on quality, nutritional value and flavor. Row Crops are great and we should have access to the best of those. But we don’t need only those types of crops. We don’t even eat those. Not a single human eats #2 yellow corn. We need more technology to create more delicious, nutritional and nature-nurtured food. Because of this, I think in the future we would need more farmers not less. Only highly distributed systems supported but by innovative, environmentally-driven and task-minded farmers, can discover the great diversity of flavors, nutrients and ecosystems that will provide the best inputs for a human species that co-inhabits a thriving planet.
The free advice I would give anyone looking to enter the ag startup scene: take advantage of the existing pros (scale, automation, mechanization). Startups that try to hitch along to already existing scale rather than trying to re-invent it present a much better opportunity for success.
This is a good advice, but not a full one. Do not only consider the pros. There is still a lot of work to be done.
Data Driven AgTech is still in early stages. Is enclosed in black boxes and proprietary technology. It still lives in the old model, conquer or die. But soon, I hope we would see a new wave of farmers that in its majority builds on top of open source models and collaboration. A Food Network. Agriculture that is inherently human and inherently natural.