The Information of Food

As a young boy growing up in India in the 70s and 80s, I was always struck by our dinner conversations when they (often) revolved around agriculture and food. My dad would discuss the harvest, the labor issues, the changes in government policy, etc. and my mom would focus on the food, the nutrients, the taste and the market prices.

In all these discussions, three things always struck me: One, that the practice of agriculture was difficult – physically and economically – but emotionally satisfying. Two, that it was complex – there were a lot of variables involved in any decision my father took for our farm – weather, government policies, labor availability, food prices, land prices, interest rates, equipment costs, (just to name a few) – all were considered all the time at both ends of the entire food ecosystem. And three that my family wanted me to get out of farming and become a professional (doctor or engineer) – the hardship and complexity was just not worth it; other professions were more efficient at making money.

foodgraphQuite a message to digest for a 10-year-old. But even more importantly, quite a paradox – if the world indeed needed is challenged by population growth, don’t we need more, smarter professionals as growers, not fewer? And, shouldn’t we have more emphasis on making the food ecosystem profitable and efficient, so young people don’t leave this important vocation as a career choice? And shouldn’t the best technologies be constantly focused on making food tastier, more nutritious, more affordable, more efficient and safer while also allowing farmers to earn higher profits? How can we achieve this? Clearly my parents couldn’t imagine that future. They saw the food ecosystem as a zero-sum game. But then again, neither could they imagine Google, Facebook, Amazon, NetFlix, or Verizon. And the common denominator to all these recent breakthroughs has been – Information and the ability/technology to disrupt the status-quo in real-time. Instant gratification.

Today, we face the perfect storm for our food supply –  climate change, regulations, population growth and a global supply-chain have aligned to necessitate the use of information. E.g., we will improve water use inefficiencies in the system if we are informed on how to produce the same yield with less water. We will no longer over- or under-fertilize if we are informed on the optimum use of nutrients that help us sustainably grow tastier and more nutritious food.

The key is to this “informed” food ecosystem, I believe, is to share in its creation and use. All stakeholders –consumers, growers, processors, retailers, natural resource managers, regulators, ag-chem vendors – must participate proactively – despite their sometimes conflicting perspectives –  in authoring-using-evolving this information, just as they do in growing our food today. And the stakes are big and fundamental to the existence of all living things on our planet – our collective success in ensuring a food ecosystem of “tomorrow” depends directly on our collective success in nurturing, contributing to, and using the information about our food – today.

Food Ecosystem: Time to disruptively innovate

datafoodTwo decades ago, nobody thought that Amazon would change the way consumer products are sold.  Starting with books, they reinvented the entire supply chain and fulfillment infrastructure of everything to be sold online. But more importantly they empowered their customers with a lot of relevant information by making it easily accessible and trustworthy. For the first time the consumer believed that they were making well informed purchasing decisions without requesting cryptic brochures from manufacturers. And this was a disruption to the prevailing wisdom of keeping the customer in the dark and instead inundate them with carefully crafted and sugar laced marketing messages.

Food and agriculture goes to the heart of our civilizations. Religions, cultures and even modern civilization have food and agriculture at their core, and sadly, we are still in Middle Ages in implementing the science, art and best practices for such an important human need.  While most of Africa and Asia is malnourished, 40% of food produced in US is wasted from field to plate. The time is right to rethink how to effectively and sustainably feed our hungry planet, as the perfect storm of depleting natural resources, increasing population and global warming is forcing the global challenge of planning, production, distribution and right pricing of food on all of us. The food ecosystem needs an Amazon, or a Google of Food and Agriculture.

Before the futurists and technologists jump into making 21st Century food production data and technology driven, there is a more basic question to ask. Why has this not happened yet? After all, Agribusiness and its ecosystem represents 17% of US economy and the government and private businesses have been investing in precision agriculture and farming practices for a long time. Why is the ecosystem not driven by useful and accurate data? When we looked at this question closely and talked to the folks on the ground, we realized that technology and the data that it generates, is more of a cost than a solution to the growers of our food, and they are the prime producers of the basic data for the industry. They are proud and self-reliant folks who love what they do. They are sincerely concerned about the perfect storm. But they are also, not so thrilled about paying for the entire cost to capture, manage and report the data that brings efficiencies to others, but to them brings regulatory, reporting and governance requirements.

We propose a disruption where data generated from the fields combined with other private and public data from the entire industry and markets becomes an asset to the grower instead of a liability. What if it can make their field operations more efficient and less expensive? How about bringing their crop to market just at the right time? What if they could easily fulfill their reporting requirements without touching a spreadsheet?  And apply right inputs to their fields based on up to date knowledge of their efficacy. We propose a disruption where right information at the right time in the right context is as easily available to our growers as it will to the processors, retailers, planners or the financial markets, and they all value and invest in this information together. We believe in the disruption of data democratization, where knowledge derived from this data is a trusted friend to our food providers, and not a tool to control them.