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Field of wheat
Natural Environment

Mitigating risk in the agricultural supply chain

New approaches to harvesting data are helping farmers to better enjoy the fruits of their labour.

World Built Environment Forum
5 March 2020

Urbanisation is placing a severe strain on agricultural supply chains. According to the European Environmental Agency, expansion of the urban fringe has led to a significant and continuing decline in farmland area since the mid-1980’s. Across the world, but particularly in developing markets, this sprawl has resulted in the loss of entire rural communities.

Largescale inward human migration to urban areas continues unabated around the world as we move towards the midpoint of the urban century. This has, if not necessarily caused, then at least coincided with a marked uptick in the distance produce tends to travel from farm-to-fork. One oft-cited study conducted by Iowa State University found that the average lettuce travels over 2000 miles to make it on to the American plate. The length and complexity of food supply chains has grown enormously. As a result, so too has their vulnerability.

Does nearer always equal greener?

As part of Sustainable Development Goal 13 on Climate Action, the UN has advocated for a shift towards greater consumption of locally sourced foodstuffs. Nonetheless, the seemingly simple calculus that nearer equals greener is dubious. Data has repeatedly shown that mechanised cultivation methods common in the global north are more environmentally damaging than long distance haulage from markets using less carbon intensive practices. According to one former UK Government Minister for Trade and Development, driving 6.5 miles to buy British grown green beans will likely result in a larger overall carbon footprint than flying them to your door from Kenya.

An increasingly climate conscious public now trains a watchful eye on farmers. Issues such as soil depletion, tree and hedgerow conservation and biodiversity have risen, and continue to rise, up the hierarchy of consumer concerns. The global market for organic food and beverages is expected to reach a value of US$ 330 billion by 2022, a doubling in size since 2016. But organic farming requires more land per yield, which brings us full circle to the diminishment of rural space eventuated by urbanisation.

Allison Kopf, CEO, Artemis
Allison Kopf, CEO, Artemis

Gender funding gap in AgTech inhibits sector growth

  • A 2018 report from Boston Consulting Group found that female founded businesses deliver US$2 revenue returns for every US$1 invested.

    Funding for nearly 7000 Agri-FoodTech startups has been secured since 2012.

    And yet, in 2018, only 3% of total dollar funding awarded in the sector went to female-only founded ventures. Allison Kopf explains:

    “There are structural, internal and external factors in play. Everybody has talked about unconscious bias. Whether or not people are aware of it, there’s a general bias that works against women, and members of other minority groups.

    “When pitching, women tend to get asked “detractor” questions, whereas men get asked “promoter” questions; they tend to be positive versus negative questions and it’s hard to pitch against detractor questions. In fact, it’s almost always an entirely uphill battle.

    “There are also structural issues. There is a lack of women in venture roles and a lack of networks for women who are trying to get to investors. The industry works on warm introductions, so you have to have a network by nature.

    “There’s a huge first-time founder gap, which creates a cold start problem: how you go from zero to one in a space that’s built against you? Things we can do to fix that? We can work to build networks for women and look at how we get more women into venture capital roles.

    “There’s going to be a massive wealth shift from men to women over the next few years, just based on the demographics of inheritance and family funding. Women will soon control a huge amount of wealth that we’ve never controlled before, and yet we’re not investing. So, we need to support women in getting into both founder and funder roles, and amplify the voices of women who are already there. 

    “The upside of these negative statistics is that things are changing. There’s never been a better time, as a woman, to start a company or think about getting into investing. That trend will hopefully only continue.

    “It’s hard, things won’t change overnight. That 3% figure will not become 50% tomorrow. But the more that we can support each other, the more likely it is that 10 years from now we can look back and be proud of how much those numbers have changed.”

The evolution of human needs

These concerns unravel against a backdrop of heightened food demand. The global population is growing, not just in number, but in stature. Our taller, heavier and more numerous descendants will collectively possess a voracious appetite; by 2100 global food production will need to increase by 80% to feed them. For farmers, these demands add to a livelihood already fraught with risk.

“Our food system does a really good job of moving quantities of calories long distances because that’s what we’ve optimised for. We didn’t optimise for sustainability, or high-quality calories, or a number of other things that we’re now starting to pay attention to societally. That’s okay, because we, as innovators, look for problems in the industry, and we build supply chains that work to solve those problems.”

Our food system does a really good job of moving quantities of calories long distances because that’s what we’ve optimised for. What we didn’t optimise for was sustainability.

Allison Kopf
Founder and CEO, Artemis

Those are the words of Allison Kopf, CEO and Founder of Artemis, one of a growing batch of data led companies that collectively form the booming AgTech sector. Forbes has estimated the market potential of AgTech at US$ 3 trillion. And when Ms Kopf speaks of her ambitions for Artemis, she could easily be speaking for the sector as a whole: “We’re focused on how we use technology to create a world that sustains itself – and we mean that not just in terms of environmental sustainability, but also profitability and supply. What we’re focused on is how we can use software as the underlying architecture that enables farmers to be more successful and to improve operations, but also make things like food safety and traceability exponentially easier.

Rooting out issues and increasing efficiency

Where previously, farmers might have judged the success of production processes on a field-by-field or crop-by-crop basis, AgTech allows for the identification of individual plants, from seed to shopping trolley. The benefits of this are manifold, for producer, retailer and consumer alike. At the farm gate, data led process optimisation can drive up crop yields, and drive down water waste, carbon outputs and contamination incidents. Further downstream, if contamination does occur, offending stocks can be accurately identified and swiftly recalled, minimising public health incidents and saving on waste. For consumers, product provenance is provable. 

All of this forms part of a larger whole. Farmers are seemingly pulled in two different directions: to provide food for the growing global population, and to reduce the stresses on an exhausted planet. As Kopf notes: “Farmers deeply care about the environment – you won’t ever meet a farmer who doesn’t. It’s a passion for everyone in our space. But the first challenge is staying in business: it’s one of the hardest industries in which to make money. There’s also a lot of misinformation in the market around agriculture as a whole. There are a lot of sustainability initiatives that are happening, that nobody talks about – and a lot that aren’t happening that lots of people talk about! What’s key for me is how to tell the farmers’ story better.”

How disruption will help

Oftentimes, disruptive technology is portrayed as a threat to traditional industries; a paradigm-busting vanguard assault on all but the most versatile players. Leaving aside whether such a view fairly represents the promise of digital transformation, it’s near impossible to conceive of a world in which food has become obsolescent. Disruption is, or at least should be, the farmer’s friend.

Says Kopf: “There’s no one, single, end-all, be-all solution for more sustainable, more energy efficient and more profitable farming. But there are solutions across different sectors that will be incredibly valuable, if we can come together.”   

It’s easy to fear that the defining megatrends of our age can only exacerbate the perennial hardships of a life and livelihood in agriculture. The truth may be somewhat different: the world’s oldest industry might just stand to gain more than any other from the new industrial revolution.