Bringing innovation to farms and food
President BidenJoe BidenHouse Endorses Bill to Provide Veterans with Cost of Living Adjustment wants to restore competition and innovation to the US economy. It should start with agriculture, largely by cutting taxpayer subsidies that protect oligopolies.
Our farms and our food are controlled by corporate giants. From 1988 to 2015, four biotech companies increased their combined share of the corn seed market from 50 percent to 85 percent. The four largest slaughterhouses increased their stakes in cattle slaughtering to 85 percent; only four giants control 70 percent of pork production and the four largest pesticide manufacturers control 57 percent of their industry. This trend also applies to food retailers and manufacturers of pharmaceuticals for livestock and agricultural machinery, which have significantly increased their consolidation over the past 25 years.
These corporate concentrations are crushing farmers with higher fees for seeds, machinery and fertilizers, and then crushing them again when producers try to sell their crops. By destroying a real market, they harm consumers, causing extra costs of 30% for chicken meat. Big Ag’s focus on monoculture even accelerates greenhouse gas emissions and reduces the diversity of food options. Our current agricultural and food systems also enable 815 million people to go hungry and 2 billion to be overweight or obese. 20% of deaths worldwide, as well as debilitating diseases such as diabetes, cancer and osteoporosis, result from poor nutrition.
With little competition, agriculture remains the least digitized of all businesses. Even though GPS mapping has been available for decades, only about half of the major corn and soybean producers in the United States deploy such systems and less than 20% use variable rate technology to target their fertilizer sprays and herbicides. While the tech industry spends 31 percent of its budget on research and development, and pharmaceuticals 19 percent, food companies allocate less than 1 percent.
Yet we live in a time of rapid technological advancement in many economic sectors. Sophisticated sensors collect huge amounts of high-resolution data, which high-performance computers decipher to provide real-time information and predictions. Autonomous machines perform complex tasks with speed and precision, while gene editors enable organisms to delay chronic disease. Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google and Novell, calls this radical convergence of data, advanced computing and advanced engineering a “super evolution” that will “fundamentally and irrevocably transform” large industries. Reflecting what we see in agriculture, he adds that innovations allow start-ups “to move faster than incumbents” resulting in “extremely agile and powerful companies”.
Competitive entrepreneurs, seeing profit opportunities through innovation, are finally bringing a “super evolution” to the agricultural sector. Agricultural technology innovators in 2020 raised more than $ 30 billion in direct venture capital investments, up 35% from the previous year. Swiss bank UBS projects agricultural technology sales to reach $ 700 billion by 2030.
These innovators demonstrate breadth and depth. Entrepreneurs grow their products vertically in large urban warehouses located closer to consumers. Biochemists create meats from stem cells and plants, providing protein without slaughtering animals. Engineers are deploying drone and ground-based sensors to assess and apply the water and nutrients needed by individual plants, reducing the need for irrigation and fertilizer. Roboticists send out autonomous machines to pick fruit and pick weeds, reducing the drudgery and need for toxic herbicides. Chefs use 3D printers to create nutritious and creative meals.
Although Biden believes competition will emerge from government payments to small-scale meat and poultry processors, today’s agri-tech entrepreneurs prefer private sector investments over politically determined subsidies. Rather, innovators hope politicians will simply stop subscribing to the least healthy foods and the most polluting farming practices, protect intellectual property, and reform federal crop insurance and support programs that subsidize the status quo and delay. competition. They know that dismantling giant companies is difficult and, at best, time consuming, but antitrust provisions can block anti-competitive practices and concentrate mergers. Simply put, innovators want the ability to compete without government programs tilting the playing field in favor of oligopolies.
A useful government investment would be in rural infrastructure so that farmers and pastoralists, not just city dwellers, can take advantage of mobile networks. About a third of rural Americans do not have broadband access, compared to just 2% for city dwellers. Yet much of the innovation now happening to farms depends on sophisticated sensors, computers and controls that rely on broadband communication.
Agricultural entrepreneurs attract investment and conquer markets in large part because the food and agriculture sectors have lagged behind technologically. Today’s confluence of advancements, including computers, sensors, robots, and machine learning, allows rapidly evolving agricultural disruptors to thrive. These visionaries and their financiers increasingly believe they can compete with the slow oligopolies of Big Ag. They also recognize that the scale of our challenges – doubling food availability and reducing pollution – demands creative thinkers and actors. . To advance innovation, Biden must stop the government from discouraging entrepreneurs and embracing the disruptors who now compete with farms and food.
Richard Munson is the author of several books, the most recent of which is “Tech to Table: 25 Innovators Reimagining Food”. He also wrote a biography of Jacques Cousteau, the underwater explorer and filmmaker, a history of electricity, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at how owners of Congress spend taxpayer dollars. Previously, he worked as Senior Director of the Environmental Defense Fund and Senior Vice President of Recycled Energy Development (RED). He has also previously coordinated the Northeast and Midwestern Congressional and Senate coalitions, bipartisan caucuses that conduct policy research and draft legislation on topics such as environmental issues. Follow him on Twitter: @dickmunson