Only 1% of the population in the US is involved with farming, and yet, the agriculture industry is facing some of the largest problems our world will ever see: a changing climate, shrinking land, and feeding a rapidly growing world population. They can't fix those problems on their own. They need technologists to help drive greater efficiency and move into this new era, to find solutions for problems that are growing more pressing by the day.
"We live in a complicated world and there's been a lot of talks these days about getting to 2050 and feeding over 9 billion people who will be on the planet," said A.G. Kawamura, the former California Secretary of Agriculture, co-chair of Solutions from the Land, and a third generation farmer. "We have the capacity but we don't have the will to do it. Logistics haven't been put into place."
The impact of cloud technology on the food and agriculture industry was a theme during the 2015 Cleantech Forum in San Francisco on Wednesday, and a major issue was food security. Experts discussed how we often look at the issue of food security as something to tackle by 2050 — but really, it's a pressing issue now, in 2015. That means things have to change for farmers, consumers, and everyone in the food supply change, and technology is the driving force in that.
Profitability is the driver in all of this. Because of the unpredictability of weather, land, and of regulatory systems, it's tough for smaller producers to build a solid business, and the solutions for large-scale farms will not be the same as small-scale ones. To increase production and make revenue, farmers of all types need better, more specific tech solutions.
"People have to eat, so how we move forward with this system of food and creating food security and consistency is really the greatest dialogue we should be having right now," Kawamura said.
The United Nations now has a Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, which focuses on moving all the agriculture systems on the planet toward 21st century sustainable solutions.
Climate smart agriculture means precision agriculture, using satellites to guide fertilization or crop management to control soil and pests; drone systems to see sick parts of fields and better care for them; and smarter irrigation systems for water to increase productivity and yields. It's all about looking at food and ag through a new lens, whether that's with large swaths of land for crops that are being grown simply to produce calories, or small urban farms.
Some of the greatest opportunities for investors and technologists, Kawamura said, include: water, whether it involves cleaning, delivering, harvesting from the air or ocean, or reclaiming water in the home; or repurposing properties for food production, like abandoned lots or warehouses in urban areas.
Another area to watch is hydroponics. Instead of looking for square feet of land to grow crops, we look for cubic feet, to grow vertically. "You can't feed the planet with lettuce, but you can put a pretty good dent in production systems," he added. About 40% of vine-ripe tomatoes in the grocery store are coming from closed system greenhouses and hothouses now. Those systems are going to continue to be more common for growing greens and other vegetables.
"[We want to] eliminate unpredictability with all [these] new ways of how to feed a world and do it sustainably and consistently without interruption," Kawamura said. "We see it advancing now because mature technologies [are] arriving at just the right time."
Technology is advancing solutions for all kinds of issues in the food and ag industry. Take food waste — 40% of our food is thrown away in the US every year, and startups are trying to find ways to connect that food with the millions of people in need. There are labor shortages in the industry as well, and communication and metric systems for farm labor are needed.
Or, said Wendy Millet, the director of TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation, look at sustainability. So much of our food is made by unsustainable means, with pesticides and GMOs. Technology can also help us better understand these topics and raise awareness about them.
"[We're] all involved in creating better and more robust toolbox," Kawamura said. "It's a renaissance to be involved in agriculture these days, and [we're] anxiously looking at your thinking, thoughts, and your products to come into the ag sector."
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.