It’s hard to believe electric vehicles were still considered the stuff of science fiction as little as 13 years ago.
As documented in the 2006 film Who Killed The Electric Car, the tech needed for battery-powered electric cars has been around for nearly 100 years. Yet well into the 21st century, popular opinion held that EVs would never make it to the mainstream. At best, they’d be slow, expensive, impractical vehicles for those willing to compromise on power, speed, and convenience for the sake of sustainability.
Then Tesla Motors burst onto the scene. Its Roadster wasn’t just the first high-performance electric vehicle to capture the attention of the masses; it jump-started a commercial market expected to reach $567 billion by 2025. With nearly every major car manufacturer now producing EVs, Tesla did what many thought was impossible: jolt a traditional industry out of inertia and prove the sustainable option could also perform powerfully and be the object of desire, not of compromise.
The next industry in line for a tech transformation will be food and agriculture. Yes, as recently as 2016 farming ranked dead last in terms of adopting digital technologies. But today it’s drawing outsized interest from investors who see a clear and pressing need to bring farming into the future. Investment in AgTech firms reached $16.9 billion in 2018, up 43% from the previous year. Even luminaries like Kimbal Musk (Elon’s brother) and Bill Gates are getting in on the AgTech game, investing and driving solutions for sustainability without compromise.
But while investors, big producers, and progressive farmers are getting on board, we’re a far cry from seeing sophisticated technologies like computer vision, robotics, data science, and machine learning make the critical leap from the labs to ordinary farm fields.
At stake is more than just market share. Like the automobile industry before it, farming desperately needs a digital overhaul to remain sustainable in the face of a growing global population and climate change. The question is: What’s it going to take for AgTech to have its Tesla moment?
Capture the mouths (and minds) of eaters
Behind the rise of EVs came with a groundswell of public interest: The increased awareness of climate change was driving a critical mass of conscious consumers to rally for better, environmentally friendlier alternatives to gas.
The same thing needs to happen in agriculture. But unlike cars, farming is a process most consumers are disconnected from.
Still, momentum is on our side. From Beyond Meat’s popularity and stock market success to the meteoric rise in demand for organic produce and the popularity of vegan and gluten-free diets, interest in where our food comes from has never been higher.
The challenge for AgTech is to take that one step further and help the general public connect the dots between what they buy at the grocery store — and put in their bodies at dinner — and the complex growing processes they rarely see. Further still, we need to show people how deeply AgTech and global health are intertwined. Currently, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of freshwater consumption on the planet. In the U.S., farms use a billion pounds of pesticides every year. The potential impact on everything from cancer rates to affordability and water safety is profound.
Growing healthy, sustainable food for the 9 billion people expected to be on the planet by 2050, requires rethinking this approach. This isn’t about adding GMOs and harmful chemicals to our food. It’s about applying technology to enhance what nature already offers. In short, to move forward, we need to bust the lingering myth that technology is the enemy of natural, abundant, and affordable food. In truth, AgTech is the only way we get there.
Focus on integration, not invention
Tesla didn’t invent the car — or the electric battery, for that matter. It improved and integrated existing technologies and brought them together into a cohesive package that became a symbol of sustainability and prowess — a symphony of clean power and advanced performance that’s a pleasure to drive.
The same thing needs to happen in AgTech. From facial recognition software that identifies individual cows and tracks herd health to robots that use machine “vision” to pick fruit and smart sensors that track everything from plant nutrients to soil moisture, the technology needed to revolutionize agriculture already exists. The trouble is it’s being developed in silos with limited integration.
Right now, what we’re doing is the equivalent of handing users an electric battery and some fancy apps and asking them to make their own electric car. What’s needed is a platform that unifies these disparate technologies into something intuitive and affordable for average farmers. So all it takes is calling up a single app on your iPad to monitor crop health, tweak everything from water flow to fertilizer, and secure the best market price at harvest. In short, we need to put our heads together — through collaboration and likely strategic acquisition — to create AgTech’s answer to the Roadster.
Enlist and convert end users
At the end of the day, Tesla’s Roadster took off not because it was carbon neutral but because it drove better and provided a better experience than pretty much any gas-guzzler on the highway. To win the market, the company didn’t have to win over environmentalists. It had to win over drivers interested in using its product day in and day out. It made it cool to drive clean.
The comparable challenge for AgTech is in appealing to its end users, farmers. We’re not quite there yet. Robotic machinery is still prohibitively expensive. Point solutions like drones or IoT-enabled fields are costly and come with a steep learning curve. Right now, AgTech-enabled yields aren’t necessarily greater and certainly aren’t cheaper than conventional alternatives. Better options will have to come forward.
The good news is, farmers are already comfortable with technology in the form of machines like combines and chemistry-like fertilizers. The onus is on AgTech to prove digital advancements aren’t just eco-friendly bells and whistles. We need to show they make economic sense by enabling growers to get more yield with less. Only when we prove digital solutions are more practical, more efficient, and more affordable than anything else on the market, will we have our Tesla moment.
Balance near-term viability with long-term vision
From the very beginning, Elon Musk’s vision went far beyond creating a fun-to-drive electric car. Tesla’s real mandate is to electrify the world and build a zero-emission future of “infinitely scalable clean energy.” Selling cars is merely a stepping stone.
AgTech can take a lesson here, as well. Precision agriculture and digital technologies can change the world. (My goal, for example, is to reduce synthetic chemical loads in agriculture by 80%, increase global crop yields by 20%, and help feed a billion people by 2028.)
With not only a nascent industry, but the health of the planet at stake, AgTech needs to think near-term and long-term at once, embracing a very pragmatic kind of idealism. The industry needs to work with partners in conventional agriculture, as well as everyday farmers, to generate buy-in and commercialize products that push us in the right direction.
This requires embracing the same spirit of iteration and experimentation that has enabled other digital sectors to leapfrog dramatically ahead. Waiting for perfection or working on the ultimate platform in isolation is not an option. After all, Tesla’s progress has hardly been seamless. They’ve faced persistent production challenges and delays. Their early models look positively primitive compared to the semi-autonomous supercars of today. Even now, their stock is volatile. But Musk has continued to iterate to the future, not allowing perfect to be the enemy of good.
Give it time
For all these parallels, AgTech does have to clear a higher bar in going mainstream than electric vehicles did. After all, we’re dealing with living organisms and complex biological systems as well as sophisticated algorithms, software updates, and sensitive machinery.
But — with all due respect to Tesla and other automakers — the sector also stands to make a much bigger impact. We need to find ways to increase global crop yields and reduce — or possibly even eliminate — the environmental impact of agriculture at a critical time in human history. It’s a noble goal and one that’s worth crossing the chasm to reach.
Karn Manhas is Founder and CEO at Terramera, a company trying to eliminate chemical pesticides.