Putting the Ag back in AgTech
Hey all, Founder Cam here, elated and exhausted after an amazing weekend at Food Loves Tech in NYC. It was an awesome opportunity for us to present to a enthusiastic crowd of foodies amongst other startups combining food and agriculture with technology. There was a drone, ice cream made from crickets, a CNC farming robot, indoor hydroponic devices, and a 3D-printer that made pizza... At the end of the show though a question rose to the surface: Is the tech industry over-complicating food and agriculture?
Here are my thoughts:
Putting the Ag back in AgTech
At the conclusion of WWII the United States shifted its manufacturing momentum from arms to ag, and heralded in the industrial agricultural revolution, ultimately the advent of the AgTech industry. The tech was more basic than it is today, but the revolution had similar goals to the one we are currently in: to combine technology and agriculture in ways that increase efficiencies and productivity. The result was chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and machinery that automated and increased the efficiency of planting, tilling, and applying biocides. This application of technology served to, most simply put, increase the destructive capacity of these processes.
Sustainable agriculture, on the other hand, is just that: a methodology that continually improves the quality of the plants, the soil, and the greater ecosystems by harnessing the benefits of biodiversity. Planting companion plants near each other will greatly reduce, or even remove the need for fertilizer and pesticides, as companion plants will attract beneficial pests and pollinators, and naturally maintain a productive fertile soil. So we made it a goal to create a product that automates and scales sustainable farming principles, enabling growers to profit from healthier plants, a larger variety of produce they can bring to market, and significantly less time in the fields planting, weeding, and applying additives.
The main argument that foodtech and agtech entrepreneurs and investors use to validate this industry is that the global population is growing at a dramatic rate, and our food production needs to grow with it. One of the more overlooked aspects of our global food economy though is the amount of food waste that we generate. With 40% of all food going into the trash the problem isn’t production, its distribution.
So we need to re-envision food distribution by shifting production to the local level, and automate and scale sustainable farming practices, not just increase how much corn we can plant or how quickly we can apply biocides. Is a drone that’s applying herbicide really any better than a tractor? It’s still an herbicide, and in all probability, one that the World Health Organization dubbed a carcinogenic. Instead of an herbicide, let’s use a weed-blocking recycled fabric. Instead of pesticides let’s use companion planting that naturally provides pest-resistance. Instead of monoculture, let’s encourage biodiversity. Instead of killing the butterfly and bee populations, let’s interplant flowering crops to attract pollinators.
We don’t need to over-complicate agriculture, or build expensive machinery that puts farmers deeper into debt. We need to localize production, reduce the miles the average bite of food travels (~1,500), and make growing food easy and environmentally sustainable. By simplifying agriculture and reducing the costs necessary to bring produce to market, we can demonstrate the viability of agriculture as a profitable venture and encourage a new generation to become farmers.
The Seedsheet uses sustainable farming principles like companion planting and intercropping to create a high-tech low-input method of growing healthy and delicious produce in a way that benefits the ecosystem. It gives farmers the ability to quickly plant weedless fields, and is the most economical way to plant multiple varieties simultaneously with the most optimal arrangements possible.
For our first year we focused on the home consumer, and designed Seedsheets to fit within popular container sizes. We proved that the first-time gardener can indeed have a green thumb and enjoy homegrown harvests. As we grow, our product line will too, and this summer we tested the commercial viability of Seedsheets by planting 700 kale plants in 11 seconds for a local school’s cafeteria, 100 feet of interplanted cucumbers and companion flowers in 30 seconds for a commercial farmer, and a mixed flower Seedsheet to attract pollinators for a commercial apple orchard. Our goal, with both home gardeners and commercial farmers, is to make growing food easy, cost-effective, and sustainable. We can change the tide of our current environmentally exploitative agricultural system, and leverage technology to bring agriculture back to its roots. Pun intended.