Farmers are no stranger to new technology and are usually quick to adopt developments that can increase production, or at the very least reduce the risk of losses.
Most are well aware that the digital age is likely to bring transformative change to agriculture and food — even if they aren’t quite ready to fully embrace it.
But what if those changes undermine the very model on which today’s agricultural sector is based?
Hannah Tucker, a U.K.-based consultant spoke at a recent City Age webinar on the Future of Food. Her company, Balance Point Ventures, explores how technological advancements are disrupting existing economic models, giving rise to a new food economy.
Spoiler alert: the food system she envisages emerging for tomorrow bears little resemblance to the one we know today.
She boils it down to a tale of three cheeseburgers. The status quo or “industrial cheeseburger,” produced from beef finished in feedlots, transported long distances to slaughter, processing and then distribution to retail and food-service customers, is the product of an economic model that emerged 150 years ago along with the development of the combustion engine.
“It’s no surprise that the industrial cheeseburger is no longer sustainable and it is no longer competitive,” Tucker said. “For the same reasons that the industrial economy as a whole is challenged.”
The value chain is resource heavy, commodified, and reliant on a narrow definition of profitability, sourcing raw ingredients from “a select number of domesticated organisms raised in monoculture fields and facilities,” she notes.
The industrialized system makes cattle into one of the villains of climate change. The system is also vulnerable to the risks inherent with increasingly volatile weather.
Tucker said new technologies in computing, data management and storage, robotics, and genomics have become more mainstream and their cost has declined to where they are collectively destabilizing the industrial economy.
That brings us to our second cheeseburger: the “modern indoor cheeseburger” such as the ones showing up in food service and retail stores.
Data analytics and computing power are enabling innovators to precisely tap into cells and molecules to make new foods, she said. That’s the science behind the meatless burgers sold by companies such as Beyond Meat. The company used data analytics to identify all of the molecular components that made beef into beef.
“What it did next was scour the plant kingdom to find comparable molecules it could use to replicate this,” she said. “It now runs this molecular mixture through precision extruders to replicate the textures desired.”
Another manifestation of the manufactured burger is the meat produced from stem cells. Precision fermentation has lowered the previously prohibitive cost of the growth culture without compromising quality. “This is converging with other developments like 3D printing to enable commercially competitive stem cell meats.”
Tucker said vertical indoor farming such as the ‘Plantopia’ system pioneered by the Ohio-based 80-Acre Farms uses data analytics, robotics and computer software to produce pesticide-free vegetables and herbs indoors, using a fraction of the resources of traditional salad green producers.
“So far, compared to the industrial model it yields 300 times more, uses 90 per cent less land, 97 per cent less water, (and is) 100 per cent renewable. It gets to market in one, not 14, days and cuts out food miles,” she said.
That’s pretty hard for field-scale agricultural producers to match.
That leads to her third example, the “modern outdoor cheeseburger,” the one produced by farming systems that she described as “the previously imperceptible interconnectivity of the biosphere,” otherwise known as regenerative agriculture.
“In this model, each organism generates multiple sources of value, not just food,” Tucker said, noting it scores highly on environmental and health benefits. “Take the cow — not only is this a source of nutrient-rich beef and dairy, but the cow also stomps carbon back into the soil and provides fertilizer. It helps keep up the soil microbiome.”
“These are ancient techniques… but what’s different today is that we can now measure the multiple streams of value with precision,” she said. “What we can measure, we can manage and we can commoditize.”
It’s also increasingly embraced by major food processors, often working in partnerships with growers.
She notes the indoor and outdoor modern models can coexist. It’s the industrial model, the one currently followed by most Canadian farmers, that faces the greatest risk.
If she’s right, there’s a new reality: unless there are changes to how farmers are supported through policy and paid through the marketplace, Canadian farmers could be left in the dust.