How COVID Is Pushing Innovations in Agriculture Forward
“This is the space to be in to make a difference in people’s lives,” said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean and professor of nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “Food is really the big opportunity for our time, and I think COVID has shown that very, very clearly, showing how fractured our food system is and how diet-related diseases, like obesity and hypertension and heart disease, are dramatically increasing risk during COVID.”
On Thursday, Worth talked to Mozaffarian, Amy Wu, founder and chief content director of From Farms to Incubators, Mariana Vasconcelos, founder and CEO of Agrosmart, and Kathleen Entwistle, private wealth advisor at Morgan Stanley Private Wealth Management about how the future of agriculture and food will change in a post-pandemic world during our latest installment of The Next Normal.
“I actually connected with quite a few female innovators just to check in on them and see what’s happening with everything from their business side to investment side,” said Wu, whose company showcases female innovators in the ag tech space. “And actually, I guess what surprised me was that their businesses are actually growing even faster due to COVID and the needs of the agriculture industry for automation and robotics. So that’s something that really stood out, another is that the investment in ag tech has increased and actually risen during this time as well, with some big investment companies and venture capitalists getting into ag tech.”
One of those innovators is Vasconcelos, who founded Agrosmart, a digital platform that works across the food supply chain, collecting data from the fields in order to help farmers make decisions, while also providing insights for the likes of food and beverage companies, banks and insurance providers. Vasconcelos is one of the business owners whose company has experienced growing interest during the pandemic.
“We have two kinds of customers: the corporate customers and the farmers,” Vasconcelos said. “So the farmers, they were demanding because they actually needed to, and we saw before, the ag techs were the new, the future of agriculture, and now everyone in this supply chain, including the multinationals, including companies, they started working digital…so the whole market changed. Then we became the normal. We were the next normal. Now we are normal.”“Everyone had to adapt to our way of selling, to our way of proceeding,” Vasconcelos continued. “So, it got easier for farmers to trust and make onsite sales and so on. And on the corporate side, we noticed they have time now. So, there’s a lot of projects that took very long to advance and so on. And now everyone’s at home, no one wants to stop working, because there’s not always things to do. So, the things started going faster. So, for us we grew like Amy said, and many other ag techs, we grew in the past months more than ever.”
On the investment side, Entwistle has also seen investment in agriculture and technology rise.
“I’m seeing more interest in the direct-to-consumer aspect of it where technology comes into play,” Entwistle said. “And I would say whether it’s food and food delivery and getting farm-to-table or if it’s even beverages or even alcohol, for years they’ve been looking to get that direct-to-consumer going. And it wasn’t until COVID that that picked up quite a bit. And I would imagine from the food space, we’re starting to see that as well. So yeah, and also great investments for private equity and venture capital and things like that, because a lot of these businesses aren’t public yet.”
While the ag tech space is accelerating right now, is it possible that this rise in agricultural innovation could actually make us healthier?
“Can then the proliferation of ag tech make us healthier? Yes, I believe so,” Wu said. “The general aspect is that it makes farmers more efficient and the yields even higher. So, with soil for example…there’s all kinds of technologies that are emerging to monitor soil health, pest management, looking at the genetics of the soil itself. And that’s critical, I feel, because what goes into the soil goes into the food and goes into our bodies. So that’s really important. So, I am a big advocate of investing more in the science area as well. What would be the intersection of ag tech and ag bio? I really believe it starts a lot with the soil actually.”
“I totally agree,” Vasconcelos said. “And I think it goes in two ways. One, farmers making better decisions and if you’d allow them to prepare better the whole crop and use less chemicals and so on. So, as a result, we have a better food, a healthier food in the end, or it allows new protocols, such as regenerative farming or getting farming to grow and scale, which brings us more food. But there is also the other side that is the environment. Like the well-done agriculture and data driven agriculture help us to recover biodiversity, mitigate climate change, reduce pollution. So, there’s many things that make our whole world better.”
But with all this growth and expansion in the ag tech sector, can food and food systems actually change? That remains to be seen.
“Innovation is coming, for sure,” Mozaffarian said. “But whether that innovation will be geared towards health, equity and sustainability or not, is not clear. Going from Doritos to Cool Ranch Doritos is not innovation. Going from gummy bears to organic local gummy bears is not innovation. I’m not making those things up; those are real products. So, I think that I’m a little worried, and I think we need to advocate, and again, ESG is a wonderful place for it. ESG is pretty mature for environment, it’s pretty mature for government. The S, especially food and nutrition and health, is very underdeveloped. And so, I think that there’s an opportunity for thought leaders to get together and develop strong metrics for the food and nutrition aspect, food system aspect of the S for all companies. I’m a hopeful optimist, but I’m also a realist.”