Bring innovation to farms and food
President Biden wants to return competition and innovation to the American economy. He should start with agriculture, largely by curtailing taxpayer subsidies that protect oligopolies.
Our farms and food are controlled by stodgy corporate giants. From 1988 to 2015, four biotech companies increased their combined share of the corn seed market from 50 percent to 85 percent. The four largest meatpackers raised their stakes in cattle slaughtering to 85 percent; just four giants control 70 percent of pork production and the four biggest pesticide manufacturers control 57 percent of their industry. This trend also goes for grocery retailers and the makers of livestock pharmaceuticals and farm machinery, which have increased their consolidation significantly in the last 25 years.
These corporate concentrations squeeze farmers with higher charges for seeds, machinery and fertilizers and then squeeze them again when growers try to sell their crops. By destroying a true marketplace, they hurt consumers, causing 30 percent overcharges for chicken meat. The monoculture focus of Big Ag even accelerates greenhouse gas emissions and reduces the diversity of food options. Our current farm and food systems also allow 815 million people go hungry and 2 billion to be overweight or obese. Fully 20 percent of worldwide deaths — as well as debilitating diseases such as diabetes, cancer and osteoporosis — result from bad nutrition.
With little competition, agriculture remains the least digitalized of all businesses. Even though GPS mapping has been available for decades, only about half of the large corn and soybean farmers in the United States deploy such systems and fewer than 20 percent utilize variable rate technology to target their fertilizer and herbicide spraying. While the technology industry spends 31 percent of its budget on research and development, and pharmaceuticals spend 19 percent, food companies allocate less than 1 percent.
Yet, we live in an era of rapid technological advances across numerous economic sectors. Sophisticated sensors collect enormous quantities of high-resolution data, which high-performance computers decipher to deliver real-time insights and predictions. Autonomous machines perform complex tasks with speed and precision, while gene editors enable organisms to retard chronic diseases. Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google and Novell, calls this radical convergence of data, leading-edge computation and advanced engineering a “super evolution” that will “fundamentally, irrevocably transform” wide-ranging industries. Reflecting what we’re seeing in agriculture, he adds that innovations allow start-ups “to advance faster than incumbents,” resulting in “extremely agile, powerful companies.”
Competitive entrepreneurs, seeing opportunities to profit though innovation, are finally bringing “super evolution” to the agricultural sector. Ag-tech innovators in 2020 raised more than $30 billion in direct venture investment, up 35 percent from the previous year. The Switzerland-based bank UBS predicts ag-tech sales will climb to $700 billion by 2030.
Those innovators display breadth and depth. Entrepreneurs grow produce vertically inside large urban warehouses located closer to consumers. Biochemists create meats from stem cells and plants, providing proteins without slaughtering animals. Engineers deploy drone- and ground-based sensors to evaluate and apply the water and nutrients needed by individual plants, slashing the need for irrigation and fertilizer. Roboticists send autonomous machines to pick fruit and pluck weeds, reducing drudgery and curtailing the need for poisonous herbicides. Chefs use 3D printers to create nutritious and creative meals.
Although Biden thinks competition will emerge from government payments to small meat and poultry processors, today’s ag-tech entrepreneurs favor private-sector investments to politically determined subsidies. If anything, innovators hope politicians will simply stop underwriting the least-healthy foods and the most polluting farm practices, protect intellectual property and reform federal insurance and crop-support programs that subsidize the status quo and retard competition. They know that breaking up giant corporations is hard and, at best, time-consuming — but antitrust provisions can block anti-competitive practices and concentrating mergers. Put simply, innovators want the chance to compete without government programs tilting the playing field to advantage oligopolies.
One useful government investment would be in rural infrastructure so farmers and ranchers, not just city dwellers, can take advantage of mobile networks. About one-third of rural Americans lack access to broadband, compared to only 2 percent for urbanites. Yet, much of the innovation now coming to farms depends upon sophisticated sensors, computers and controls that rely on broadband communication.
Agricultural entrepreneurs are attracting investments and capturing markets largely because the food and farm sectors have been technological laggards. Today’s confluence of advances — including computers, sensors, robots and machine learning — allow fast-moving agricultural disruptors to thrive. These visionaries and their financiers increasingly believe they can outcompete Big Ag’s slow-moving oligopolies. They also recognize that the sheer size of our challenges — to double food availability and slash pollution — demands creative thinkers and actors. To advance innovation, Biden needs to stop the government from discouraging entrepreneurs and embrace the disruptors now bringing competition to farms and food.
Richard Munson is the author of several books, most recently “Tech to Table: 25 Innovators Reimagining Food.” He also has written a biography of Jacques Cousteau, the undersea explorer and filmmaker, a history of electricity, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at how congressional appropriators spend taxpayer money. He previously worked as senior director of the Environmental Defense Fund and senior vice president at Recycled Energy Development (RED). He also previously coordinated the Northeast-Midwest Congressional and Senate Coalitions, bipartisan caucuses that conduct policy research and draft legislation on topics including environmental issues. Follow him on Twitter: @dickmunson