In the next 20 years, our world faces a food crisis. We expect 9.2 billion people to be on the planet by then – and in order to feed everyone, we’re going to need to triple our current agriculture output.
Scaling to meet this demand will require greater agricultural productivity, which to date has been primarily driven by the expansion of land or the use of more fertilizer – neither of which are sustainable long term.
Efficiency must be driven by precision agriculture – helping farmers with a cost-efficient means to analyzing, predicting and managing crops toward maximizing productivity.
Solving this problem is complicated and will not come from one mind, but many. The good news: there are several startups and entrepreneurs tackling this challenge head on. From the way food is grown to the way it’s preserved to the way it’s reused and recycled, the entire supply chain is being optimized.
Below is a series of companies coming out of the SOSV’s accelerator programs that are doing exactly this.
There are two main ways to address the surmounting problem: grow more and waste less.
Making Agriculture More Efficient
Over the last decade, we’ve mostly relied on fertilizers and pesticides to increase the production of food. Like most things not used in moderation, we’re reaching a limit on this as a solution to grow more food.
There’s only so much fertilizer soil can take before it becomes counterproductive to growth – making now more important than ever to gain high-precision insights into soil chemistry and environmental conditions that foster and optimize output.
Annual % Growth in Global Agricultural Output
Source: USDA, Economic Research Service
The Future of Farming: Soil Testing Comes to the Fore
“Soil is the largest living organism on earth, yet humans know far more about our solar system than we do the top six inches of soil on this planet.”- Remi Schmaltz, CEO of Decisive Farming
The company’s developed a portable, lab-grade testing unit that provides farmers with a quick and cost-effective way to sample, test and analyze chemical levels in the soil. Providing on-the-spot feedback, it helps farmers measure the chemical balance in their soil – enabling them to adjust the types and amount of inputs their using (all in effort to improve and optimize crop yield).
The benefit here is the speed in which farmers know what’s working (and what’s not). Rather than culling the sample and sending it off for analysis, farmers can do testing in near real time across fields and parcels – accelerating time to action and improving overall soil composition for better yield.
Another company helping farmers on the grow front is Beeflow, an IndieBio startup that is developing smart and strong bees for crop pollination. As we all know, bee populations around the world have been declining – making pollination across crops more challenging.
Taking aim at the root of the problem, the company has developed bee-health and pollination management technologies – enabling farmers to not only reduce bee colony collapse, but also target specific crops for pollination and increase crop yields by up to 90%.
Preventing Waste in the Supply Chain
Another part of the food challenge: one third of what’s produced globally is wasted. How much? Approx. 1.3 billion tons – that’s enough to feed 37% of the world’s population.
In the world of grain farming, there’s an opportunity to cut the losses. Take corn, for example. In the US, over 96 million acres of land is devoted to the crop (larger than the size of Germany) and it’s stored in commercial grain bins.
When moisture and mold get in, farmers run the risk of not only losing the crop, but hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue as a result.
AmberAg, a HAX startup, is tackling this problem through the use of small wireless sensors. By dropping a handful of units into grain bins, farmers can monitor and manage the condition of their crops in storage. Should moisture and mold be detected, fans can automatically kick in to fix the problem – enabling farmers to waste less and capture the highest possible price per bushel.
Waste is, as we all know, a problem farther down the food chain. Take New York City, for example. Each year, the city produces 1.5 million tons of food waste and spend $180 million exporting it to landfills.
Addressing this issue is Re-Nuble, a FOOD-X startup. Every day in the South Bronx, the company converts 1,200 pounds of local food waste into 275 gallons of certified-organic liquid fertilizer and plant boosters into chemical free, organic nutrients for both soil-based and hydroponic cultivation.
Through their proprietary process, the company’s goal is to ensure that scraps of pre-consumed, organic certified food waste unable to be redirected for human or animal consumption is recycled and makes its way back to the earth in a safe, sustainable manner.
Focused on the commercialization of technologies that optimize plant nutrition sourced from food waste, they aim to create a completely sustainable, closed loop food and plan production system.
From Farm to Table: Selling and Consumption
The company has developed the world’s first machine-learning solution with real-time tracking for grocery stores looking to offer customers dynamic pricing based on a product’s expiration date. At the heart of it is a supply chain technology that uses RFID and a pricing algorithm to help reduce food waste and increase revenue via dynamic pricing for grocers.
Having developed an edible and natural biomaterial coating, the company’s solution materially extends the shelf life of perishable foods – thereby reducing food loss at every step of the value chain for producers, distributors, and consumers.
“One-third of the food produced in the world is lost or wasted. This has a massive economic, social, and environmental impact. The situation is developed areas, like the U.S. or Europe, is even worse, and fifty percent of fruits and vegetables are wasted every year.” – Jacques Grislain, CEO, Cambridge Crops
How it works: the coating is sprayed directly on the food peel in a very thin film, less than 1/10 the thickness of a hair. You can’t see it, it has no scent or flavor, and is fully edible. It plays a role as a protective shield that reduces extraneous gasses and water to prevent decay.
Tested across a number of crops, the company was able to double the shelf life of bananas. While this technology is currently being applied to fruits and vegetables, it has the potential to also extend the life of meat and non-food applications, like cut flowers.
Chinova Bioworks, a RebelBio startup, is doing something similar. In 2016, the founders recognized the challenge of the “preservative paradox,” as they put it; the fact that preservatives are essential to reducing food and beverage waste. Often, they found, the applied solution was unhealthy for consumers.
Looking to nature for an answer, the company found that chitosan, a fiber from mushrooms, could be a solution. Since then, they’ve embarked on a mission to provide a preservative that is not only effective, but also healthy at the same time.
Their mission: to replace unhealthy artificial preservatives in food and beverages to make people healthier and products safer.
The Future of Farming and Food
As more people inhabit our planet, we will together need to find a way to not only produce more food, but waste less of it. While the startups mentioned here have begun to tackle the issues plaguing our food supply chain, there are many others doing the same – and we applaud each and every effort to making this world a better place.
For more information on agricultural startups in the SOSV family, please visit the SOSV portfolio website. If you have a startup that is poised to tackle any of these challenges – and beyond – we encourage you to apply to any one of SOSV’s accelerators.