Who’s Really Benefiting from Sustainable Food and Agriculture Technologies?

After Obama’s address in Milan, food and ag sustainability experts Danielle Nierenberg and Danielle Gould assess this powerful—and still very young—space.

Editor’s note: We kicked off our first annual Food Loves Tech event last summer in Chelsea—here’s a recap. We’re bringing a taste of the food and farming future back this year, but just across the East River at Industry City. Leading up to the event, this story is part of an ongoing series about technology’s effects on our food supply.

In his first official speech since leaving office, Barack Obama stated a truth that many in the sustainable food and ag worlds have been wanting him to say for years. Last month in front of an elite international cohort of entrepreneurs, investors and thought leaders in the field at the third annual Seeds&Chips in Milan, he publicly acknowledged that climate change will “define the contours of this century perhaps more than any other [modern global challenge],” agriculture and food production are the second largest culprits and, finally, this must change.

As president, Obama’s climate change agenda mostly targeted energy sector regulation. He didn’t dwell too much on government responsibility in Milan, though, despite Trump making headlines that day for delaying his decision on whether or not the United States would keep its Paris climate pact. Obama instead addressed his immediate audience while calling for the empowerment of young activists along with innovation in science and industry to help us reduce emissions and mitigate the present and future issues. “I believe these are problems that were caused by man and can be solved by man,” he affirmed.

So how are those working toward a more sustainable food and ag system doing? Looking at the Seeds&Chips roster as a sign of the times, vertical farming, food waste concepts, improved distribution and a slew of consumer products seemed to dominate. Panels and presentations at the mostly business-to-business conference included a wide swath of timely topics like: “How millennials are changing the food industry,” “The breadth and tools of precision agriculture,” “New and super foods,” “Climate change and the food industry” and “The impact of AI on the food system.” Products like bacon and pasta made from seaweed were riding high.

Although present, there was comparatively very little representation of some of the world’s most vulnerable populations in regard to climate change, and a small amount of the overall programming addressed their needs. Actual farmers were largely missing, too, making it difficult to assess how practical or necessary some of the technologies targeted at them actually are. Thinking about Obama’s remarks, this raises an existential question for these powerful #agtech and #foodtech industry trends: Who are these technologies actually serving?

I discussed this question at the conference with Danielle Gould of Food+Tech Connect and Danielle Nierenberg of Food Tank. The two food and ag sustainability experts shared their critiques, insights and hopes for this promising—and still very young—space.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

daniellenierenberg

Danielle Nierenberg is the president of Food Tank. Photo credit: Facebook/Danielle Nierenberg.

Edible Manhattan: What are some of the innovations that you’re seeing at this year’s Seeds&Chips? Anything that’s pushing the food and tech conversation forward?
Danielle Nierenberg: I don’t see anything that I haven’t seen before and you [to Danielle Gould] know this space a lot better than I do. I think a lot of it is building on some tech we’ve seen in the past, and there’s not anything super new, but I would say that this conversation is important because dialogue [about food, agriculture and technology] is needed and more of it.

EM: Do you feel like it’s lacking? If so, what?
DN: I wish there was a greater diversity of people here. Definitely farmers and definitely a Global South perspective [are missing]—just having a few speakers representing these groups is not enough as far as I’m concerned, especially when a lot of this technology could be adapted to be used in those countries. Having the dialogue and having it in Milan is all great—it just could be more diverse.

EM: How about you Danielle (Gould)?
Danielle Gould: I agree. What I love about this conference is that it really brings together entrepreneurs and investors from across the globe that are working on all different kinds of innovations. It’s a great meeting place, and I think that as technology adoption increases and as this industry evolves, one thing Seeds&Chips has the potential to be (and that it will hopefully do) is really reach out to engage more audiences and bring them here.

This is a place where you can learn about these technologies, you can have these in-depth conversations, and I think that it’s the beginning of an exchange of ideas. I think that it can go deeper, and so I’m excited about that since there really isn’t anything that’s like this as far as bringing together such an international group.

There is so much advancement in the United States, but a lot of what I see here is very new and different international companies have new takes on it. For example I just saw a wholesale trading platform for fruits and vegetables. We have a lot of these in the U.S. but this is the first one in Europe. The founder has worked for 10 years in this industry, and they’re doing some really smart things that people in the U.S. aren’t.

From my experience in coming to Italy for food conferences over the years, [Italians, for example] understand food in a much different way and they’re much closer to agriculture. Like once at a festival where I presented on agtech, Italian attendees were like, “Oh, for that platform, how many hectares of land is that? What kind of size farm is that?” I never get those questions in the U.S. so I just think that with a lot of these international communities they are so connected to food and farming that some of the solutions are more interesting even if it is an evolution that’s already kind of gone on in the U.S. The founders are in some cases more informed.
DN: Just to build on that, the other thing that I like is the linking of technology to food policy. Like what’s happening with the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, for example. I think that’s so important.

mattfurman_danielle_gould_mergedlayers

Danielle Gould is the founder and CEO of Food+Tech Connect. Photo credit: Matt Furman.

EM: Can you describe that a little bit?
DN: So the pact was signed during Expo 2015 by 140 countries signed on to really increase innovation around urban food systems. For their awards (the first ones happened last year), countries and cities submitted really unique ideas to increase access and affordability to build green spaces, do all the things that we want urban agriculture to do, be able to replicate and scale those projects in different ways and serve as examples to other cities and towns. So having the deputy mayor and mayor of Milan here to talk about that is really exciting. [I’m encouraged by] the link between these really concrete, cool innovations and then the policy that they’re helping to reform and replicate elsewhere.

EM: Is there an example of the technologies that they’re using in that way?
DN: A lot of the urban ag and vertical farming stuff for sure. I’ve not seen any specific displays of it here, but it’s similar to Stephen Ritz’s work [Ritz is an educator in the South Bronx and CEO of the Green Bronx Machine]. I don’t think there’s another conference that’s linking the tech to the policy [like Seeds & Chips].
DG: Yeah, definitely not—that’s a really great point.

EM: And so for the technologies that are here, what or who are they serving? Do you think this conference is really good for people who work in the vertical agriculture space, for example?
DG: I think it’s really diverse. You have a lot of hardware and software. You have solutions for restaurants on the technology side, agriculture, distribution, farming, and there are a lot of interesting food products, too. There are people using innovative ingredients and are developing interesting processing technologies that they’re going to end up licensing out, so I think it’s really a very diverse crowd. It’s good for anyone who’s just kind of rethinking food from any perspective. It’s not the place where you’re going to say, like, “Oh, I just created a chia kombucha.” I don’t think it’s good for that, but if you have some very innovative play on a functional beverage, for example.

EM: So like Seamore’s [a seaweed foods company], for example, or the Coffee Flour folks? Like especially foods that have an innovative sustainability angle, including those that use food waste.
DG: There are a lot of products here that are leveraging waste, also called “seconds.”
DN: Do you see that trend continuing?
DG: Yeah, there are so many companies—it’s staggering. Refed [a multi-stakeholder nonprofit committed to reducing U.S. food waste] and their report that just came out said that there are over 400 companies and organizations that are working on food waste. I mean it’s almost to the point where you’re like, “Oh, another company that’s developing a food waste project.” That’s a really good thing.

BK ROT - Kitchen scraps ready to be chopped before going into the compost bin.

In the U.S. alone, there are over 400 companies and organizations that are working on food waste. Photo credit: Valery Rizzo.

Joey DeMarco (Food Tank writer also in convo): Why do you think so many of the companies seem to be based out of New York?
DG:  New York was already a food hub. That’s really where the artisanal food movement really got started, and a lot of that happened because people lost their jobs in 2008 and chose to do what they’re passionate about, like cooking more at home and eventually even selling what they made. Concurrently there were more of these marketplaces like the Greenpoint Food Market (it was a really big one before Smorgasburg), where people could sell and convene and test out their products.

On the tech side, I mean, look, I’m not trying to toot our horn but [Food+Tech Connect] started doing a lot of events and programming that was around evangelizing the opportunities for bringing technology and innovation to food. What that helped do is bring more investment because there was a lot of attention, and when there’s a lot of investment, it will grow the industry.

I think also because the media is there, too, it was easier to get them to come cover what was going on. So I think it was a confluence of a couple of different things, but definitely [New York has] an ecosystem. We started building out an ecosystem, and when you have ecosystems, it just enables a lot of great growth. Another place where there’s a really awesome ecosystem is in Israel.

EM: Switching gears a bit, does either of you feel like the conversation is getting pushed forward in a way that resonates with Obama’s address? By that I mean, do you feel like this food and tech space is promoting technologies that we feel can help mitigate the effects of climate change and make people more resilient? Do you see that here?
DG: I do. I was just walking around the floor and I would say that there are a lot of companies that are very ambitious. In the U.S., there are a lot of companies that are “me too” companies, meaning that people are going after whatever is sexy and wherever there’s a lot of funding—so many delivery companies, so many meal kits, so many juice companies—and I think that there’s a much greater diversity here and the industry’s evolving quite a bit.

We are toward the tail end of the first generation of these companies. Some of the companies that launched like five years ago are getting acquired and there’s a lot of shakeout with so many lessons learned. Companies that started [early on] didn’t have the kind of funding or their customer adoption wasn’t as high and that’s evolved so much.

The fact that you would never be having a conversation about open data with a big company five years ago. It wouldn’t happen, they’d say you’re crazy. Every company now has a fund. They were not investing in start-ups, they were just acquiring them. So the conversation has changed so dramatically, and I think that what it’s doing is that it’s going to enable companies to think more ambitiously.
DN: And I totally agree with that. I hope all sorts of these consumer products will evolve into things that are actually working for farmers. You’ll have those funds that are already created. People won’t be looking to make a million dollars immediately or whatever; they’ll be able to work on different things because the investment’s already there and that frees up so much.

EM: Do you see any early signs of that here? Or even outside of Seeds&Chips, too?
DN: Sort of. I mean I think what I’ve seen over the last seven years since I’ve started traveling and seeing different innovations is that they’ve been very separate; it’s ag innovation and it’s food innovation. What I’m hoping is that there’s some sort of mind meld and investment that gets to the techniques and innovations that are needed for not just farmers in developing countries but farmers in the rural Midwest, for example, who are facing a lot of challenges that they don’t know how to deal with right now.
DG: Back to the Roots is my favorite example of a company [that’s blending food, ag and tech]. The reason that they got into cereals is because they read Dan Barber’s The Third Plate and learned about issues with wheat. They felt the need to create a market for sustainably produced regional wheat and decided to make a product to do so. They decided on cereal, which is actually a dying category. There’s a five-ingredient cereal and it’s all sourced from the U.S. and they’re helping their farmers grow with them. They create partnerships in the supply chain, and that’s a really cool model that I want to see more. New York City schools just got rid of Kellogg’s and replaced them with Back to the Roots and that’s huge.
DN: Yeah, that’s large-scale procurement.

EM: And institutionalizing this change. It’s an important example.
DG: The other thing that’s interesting is that there are some funds like S2G Ventures that are investing in synergistic companies and developing partnerships between the companies that they invest in. So there’s a lot of those sort of interesting opportunities and I think that investors can play a role.

EM: Next year, what do you both hope to see at Seeds&Chips and elsewhere? Where do you hope this food, ag and tech space is moving?
DN: I mean just what I mentioned before: a greater diversity of participants. I think you need more farmers here who can learn from a lot of these innovations. I think we forget that farmers are doing technology in the field every day, they’re just not getting any credit for it. They’re making their own equipment a lot of the time or they’re repairing it in different ways. I think they would benefit from seeing some of these really cool technologies.

EM: And the technologies would benefit from that, too. It’s about participatory innovation.
DN: Yeah, and just being about to have a say in what’s being developed I think is key. Other groups are missing here, too. There’s not a lot of socioeconomic diversity here, for example. It’d be great if there were high school students that weren’t studying at the American school but were studying at a regular school. They’re really privileged kids and they’re great because they’re really well informed, but having more young people here to learn about food and tech means that they can be inspired and figure out what to do in college.
DG: I would agree with everything that Dani said. I would also be more focused on accessibility. I think that throughout the whole industry, there are very few people working on making good food more accessible.

EM: And why do you think that is necessarily?
DG: One thing is that a lot of times people build for both what they know and early adopters. There’s not a lot of clear funding for going beyond this right now.
DN: That’s what I was trying to get at before. I mean once the funding’s there, then you can do these other things.

EM: What can we do about that?
DG: I mean there’s a lot of different for-profit nonprofit models. There are a couple of companies that are doing really interesting things. For example, I love this concept Everytable, which is a restaurant chain in L.A. that has variable pricing based on location. So if you go to one of their spots in Compton, for example, you’ll get a salad for like $4 while if you go in Santa Monica, it’ll be $10. So they are basically subsidizing, and that’s interesting. I also think vending machines are huge.
DN: I’m waiting for that to pop, though. I don’t know how long that’s sustainable. I was hearing about the cooling issues today and the expense of that and that footprint—I don’t know.
DG: But if you think about the footprint of a vending machine versus a corner store or a little bodega…
DN: I mean, you don’t want to put those people out of business either. They can also be culturally significant and important to communities who like going there. You can put the vending machine in the bodega, but I think those cultural things…. Being here in Italy always reminds me of what people are used to and what this might mean to a lot to them, including those interactions that we have at the corner store. I mean [substituting with a vending machine] can change things in ways that you can’t predict.

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Ariel Lauren Wilson

Lauren grew up on her family's farm in the North Carolina mountains. She now lives in New York and is the editor of Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn.