It pays to get out of your comfort zone sometimes, pushed to think a bit differently — especially if it’s about your line of work or something about which you are passionate.
I recently attended a conference called the Sustainability and Digitalization Leaders in Agriculture.
When the organizers first reached out to me — likely because they found some things I’ve written on that topic — I said, yeah, not likely, and I especially wasn’t going to Miami for it. But after looking at the agenda, it was one of those opportunities that we’ve identified to try to provide content in Farmtario that isn’t found elsewhere and that provides some glimpse of what is going on outside of Ontario and agriculture.
The conference was an interesting mix of agriculture tech entrepreneurs, agriculture venture capitalists, researchers, company leaders, researchers and sustainable development workers and organizations.
Speakers were highly diverse.
Here are some observations from the conference and the messages and conversations I had there.
1. Companies and investors are looking global when they are developing technology. That especially means emerging countries, where the growth potential is and where global population increases mean a huge need for food in the next 30 years.
2. There’s still a pervasive perception that farmers aren’t significant users of technology. When I challenged this thought, the narrative switched to the idea that agriculture hasn’t been digitized. That’s a bit more understandable and true. The tools are there, but they aren’t always being used.
3. The interest in agriculture remains huge among venture capitalists and organizations with start-up funding. If you have a great idea, especially one that helps out at the farm level, but can also have an effect on environmental sustainability (a very broad umbrella, and often goes hand-in-hand with on-farm productivity improvement) then there is money available.
4. Tech entrepreneurs fervently believe that they can drive costs out of the agriculture and food value chain, creating more value for farmers and consumers, but they need more places on that value chain (not just farmers, but everyone else) that are willing to share data.
5. Drone uses are maturing. There’s been a significant rationalization in the drone maker and service provider market in the past year. Many companies have merged or gone out of business. That was likely to happen, and it also means the companies that are left are finding where drones really have value.
6. Ontario agriculture technology startups need more mentoring, likely from outside the country, people who can tie them to greater markets and sources of funding.
7. Activist organizations are ready to deal. When large companies talk about their sustainability programs, they are often tied in with a one-time adversary. For example, Smithfield, the huge hog producing company, has worked with Environmental Defence on its significant sustainability program.
8. We’re entering a post-organic world when it comes to sustainability. In the large, global-level and whole sector thinking that’s going on related to climate change and soil health, I’m rarely hearing discussion about organic as a solution. The idea I hear more is that the solutions needed can’t be restrained by the rigid rules of organic’s designation. Organic remains a small amount of the market, and the premium prices commanded means it is a market for higher earners.
9. Listening to consumers doesn’t help farmers or advance environmental concerns. Kevin Krueger, a food procurement and sustainability manager for a hospital in Memphis, which serves 1.5 million meals a year, has looked throughout the supply chain and says that relying on consumers to make informed sustainability decisions is challenging. They don’t do what they say they will and make simple decisions. Real changes come from further down the supply chain. Farmers shouldn’t be expected to follow what consumers say, says Krueger, because farmers are busy producing food at a cost the market will bear.
10. Food system complexity is extraordinary, and that’s a major limiter to sustainability programs and technology being put through the whole system. Consumers don’t understand that complexity and similar to my point above, focusing on what they say they want isn’t going to create change that’s sustainable for farmers.