Agriculture 2.0

Last night in a small forum opened to the public, the Sustainability Practice Network held a panel discussion, moderated by the RiskMetrics Group, about the future of sustainable agriculture.  The speakers were an important group of corporate and non-profit voices:

  • Michael Doane, Agricultural Economics and Sustainability, Monsanto
  • Ani Gulati, Assistant General Counsel and Sustainability, General Mills
  • Chip Jones, SVP Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, Dean Foods
  • Jake Baker, Climate Change Investment Research, Deutsche Bank
  • Tensie Whelan, President, Rainforest Alliance
  • Josh Viertel, President, Slow Food USA

Admission:  I’m inclined to judge these names and titles quickly, breaking them down into “us” and “them.”  Afterall, I grew up as our culture started to summarize complex issues in the few words of a bumper sticker or a t-shirt slogan.  To the credit of everyone involved last night, the panel facilitated a conversation.

Continued below

Image Courtesy of The Matter Network

Image Courtesy of The Matter Network

As an easy definition of sustainability, we say it’s when something is good for the three P’s:  people, planet and profits.  In speaking of agriculture, the P in people quickly becomes the P in population.  The human race is expected to nearly double in size to 9 billion by 2050.  No one is sure how we will feed this many.

A question emerged from the panel:  To feed the growing population, do we need to increase food production or can we accomplish this by improving food distribution channels?

To this end, Josh Viertel gave an astonishing statistic:  Last year we made enough food to feed 11 billion people.  “We don’t have a production gap, we have a distribution gap,” he said.

Michael Doane of Monsanto advocated for increased production as the solution.  His company develops biotech seeds — seeds infused with a trait to resist drought or certain pests, for example — that create more prolific crops.  According to him, there are two billion acres of biotech crops around the world.  They are starting biotech rice in China.  (Yes, the biggest crop among the world’s largest population is going biotech.)  Only the Europeans are holding out against this technology.

In response, I understand the quickening of our collective heart rate as we think about a food crisis one generation away.  Many forces are working to address this immediately.  But in the break-neck pace of solution (and market share gain), we risk undermining a delicate ecological system.  Monsanto has a Research and Development department that constructs new seeds to conquer the traditional problems of farming.  But the problem with genetically modified seeds or biotech seeds is that Nature also has its own R & D department.  The biotech seeds may solve a weakness for awhile, but over time, Nature returns with a more robust pest or plant disease.

At very least, biotech does not solve problems for the long term.  At very worst, it irreversibly tampers with the agricultural heritage of which we are the guardians.

We have many compelling possibilities to address food insecurity and planet peril, such as:

  • Improved distribution channels, including the decentralization of food.  More local providers and thus shorter food chains.
  • Vertical Farming:  An urban-based system using closed-loop hydroponics.  Crops are located where the population lives.  We preserve seed integrity and there’s no need for pesticides.
  • Sustainable fish cultivation.
  • Increased global productivity through better farming techniques and training.
  • And the expansion of our growing surfaces:  Rooftops, abandoned lots, etc.

Yes, these other ideas are in the nascent stage of development.  But when we consider what’s at stake — food for human beings — how can we not develop these ideas first?  The answer to the question of whether it is increased production or improved distribution is likely both.

Not at the risk, however, of manipulating seeds when many other workable solutions exist.  I stand with the Europeans on this one.  Readers, I’d love to hear from you.

Lately, whenever we’re surprised by new uses for common surfaces, it’s usually in the name of advertising.  For example, these days the simple act of opening an airplane tray table brings us face-to-face with an ad.

Now the reinvention of everyday surfaces is becoming the vanguard of sustainable food.  From suburban yards to warehouse rooftops to ocean waters, many overlooked places are the new “ground” for growth.

Last week at Agriculture 2.0, Bruce Kahn, Ph.D., of Deutsche Bank, stated that the world does not have enough productive land to feed the coming population boom.  According to Kahn, even if we improve the global land output to 90% productivity, the shortage will still exist.

A New Field?

A New Field

David Tze, of Aquacopia, an investment firm for seafood farming, later responded that Mr. Kahn’s statistics didn’t account for food production in the world’s oceans.  Imagine if the sea were as prolific as the land in providing people with protein sources.  Another presenter, Norbert Sporns of HQ Sustainable Maritime Industires, Inc., underlined the immediacy of this point.  His company, a member of the American Stock Exchange, has a full line of packaged meals based on the fish tilapia, farmed using “zero toxins.”  According to the company website, “Total U.S. consumption of tilapia products has risen from less than $20 million in 1992 to nearly $560 million in 2007.”  Consumer demand – based on want, not yet need – is in full swing.

The Sky Vegetable System

The Sky Vegetable System

Back on land — where my heart resides — Sky Vegetables plans to grow city food on large scale rooftops.  The clean system runs on solar and wind power to energize its year-around hydroponic greenhouse.  Rain water collection barrels gather water for the crops.

This company corrects several big problems in our current food system:  It brings fresh produce to under-served, but eager, urban communities.  It does so by shortening the miles and gallons of gasoline needed to deliver good food.  As a closed-loop system, using clean and recycled water, it does not put pesticides or toxic run-off into the area.  Add in the benefits of a green roof for the host building and its energy savings from excess solar and wind production, and we have a growing system that I believe our children will know well.

SPIN Farming: Front Yard, Front Farm

SPIN Farming: Front Yard, Front Farm

Lastly, SPIN-Farming is radical in its simplicity.  Take the land you have and grow on it.  SPIN-Farming operates as a franchise, largely by providing learning materials for the SPIN system.  The good news is the cost of entry is very small: $100 bucks will get you started.  In the words of one of the company’s founders, Roxanne Christensen, SPIN “removes the two big barriers to entry for new farmers – land and capital.”  Now the future looks better for the annual block potluck party, too.

Note:  All companies mentioned here were participants in the conference, Agriculture 2.0 in New York City.

Last week, in one of the most densely populated places on Earth, 150 people addressed a topic usually left to pasture:  The future of agriculture.

At one point, Melina Shannon-DiPietro, Director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, asked the audience, “How many of you have worked in a garden in the past month?”  Over three-quarters of the room raised our hands.

Shannon-DiPietro also said that Yale University currently offers 30 classes related to food and agriculture.  As recently as 2003, that number was zero.

What is happening here and why now?

The group in the NYC room was attending Agriculture 2.0:  The Conference for Innovators & Investors, hosted by NewSeed Advisors and SPIN-Farming.  There is much to explore, and for now, a few facts have percolated to the top:

  • Many estimate the world’s population will grow to 9 billion by 2050.  As a result, the Asset Management arm of Deutsche Bank foresees a 50% increase in global caloric demand.  We aren’t ready.
  • Every year, as the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico, the agricultural run-off creates a vast “dead zone” in the water.  The dead zone can get as large as the state of Mississippi and nothing survives in it.
  • Tod Murphy of the Farmers Diner said that as Americans consume food carted from thousands of miles away, we eat about 19% of our country’s fossil fuel usage.  Robert Fireman of Sky Vegetables framed the issue another way:  Every year, the average American intakes 350 gallons of oil with his meals.

We have never had issues like these before in human history.

But innovators live in the solution.  We have also never been as connected and accessible to one another as we are now.  Thus, in the spirit of the pioneers at Agriculture 2.0, we have never had opportunities like this before.  More to come.

Sustainable agriculture usually implies organic methods of growing.  Many of us deride the use of technology – in the form of pesticides, for example – as one of the toxic practices currently used in farming.  But in the call to grow food more cleanly, some people hear the chant to abandon modern advancement all together.  Over the summer, Blake Hurst, an industrial farmer from Missouri criticized what he termed, “agri-intellectuals” for “demanding that farmers like me use 1930s technology to raise food.”

I don’t believe that is the demand at all.  We don’t want a return to the past; we are advocating for something new.  Today in New York, we’ll investigate the possibilities at a conference entitled, Agriculture 2.0.  Hosted by the investment group, New Seed Advisors, it is “the first conference for sustainable agriculture innovators and investors.”

The changing state of food production is an evolving conversation.  I look forward to reporting on the events of today.  Stay tuned.