May 2014: Ag Tech and the Power of Catchy Criticism
Ag+Tech. Agriculture gets its mojo back...again.
2014 is shaping up to be the year of Ag+Tech. Multiple 'meetups' and 'convenings' (conferences are so yesterday) are cropping up along with 'clusters' and 'incubators'. But what is Ag+Tech, why did it suddenly become a thing, who are the players, and is it real or is it a bubble?
First, let's be clear. Although many pundits ignore ag because it employs less than 2% of the US population and evokes wistful nostalgia for a simpler time...ag has actually often been tech's earliest adopter. Archimedes' screw was used in the 3rd century BC to drain land for agriculture. Precision-agriculture with GPS-guided, self-driving tractors has been in use for years before the Google self-driving car started spooking commuters on I-280.
Ag+Tech has earned renewed excitement these days because, ironically, agriculture is an early adopter of exciting new technologies. Take drones (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). The FAA currently prohibits flying drones for commercial purposes … but a farmer can deploy them on her land. That makes ag a great crucible for experimentation. These drones generate gobs of data – typically multi-spectral images of land that can be analyzed for water, nutrient, soil and chemical composition – that lead to the next hot tech area: Big Data. This is part of the trend towards more data-driven agriculture. With the pressure of climate change, resource constraints, and the need to feed 9 billion people by 2050 – the ag industry has embraced Big Data and analytics and is seeing results. So much so, that Monsanto scooped up ag data company Climate Corp. for a cool billion dollars in October last year. Robotics are also showing up in the field. Long bolted in place in production lines or fetching boxes in warehouses, robots are now exploring the farm – thinning, pruning, and even picking strawberries (albeit very, very slowly). There's even experimentation with Google Glass-wearing 'birddogs' to inspect crops remotely.
As a result, a number of Ag+Tech events have sprouted up in 2014, just a few of which include Silicon Valley AgTech, Larta Institute's Global Ag Innovation Network (GAIN), the PMA's tech-focused events. One event was held in Tampa in March. The next is coming up May 21st in San Diego, and even boasts its own Ag+Tech Shark Tank with VC's hearing pitches from ag entrepreneurs. Traditional ag regions are also angling to be magnets for technology investment, such as UC Davis' Sustainable Ag Tech Innovation Center, The Steinbeck Innovation Center, in Salinas, and the awkwardly named Nor-Cam Agri-Tech Cluster at Cambridge University, UK.
Most technologies are overhyped before they become mainstream – and these Ag+Tech innovations are no different. However, some of these technologies will unquestionably become the new normal, helping growers improve yields, reduce waste and run off, lower input costs, mitigate labor challenges, make growing safer, and even improve the flavor of our food.
The power of catchy criticism
Last week we saw Coca-Cola vow to remove brominated vegetable oil from its Powerade sports drink following Pepsi's promise to do the same with Gatorade. The ingredient has attracted attention after a Mississippi teenager started a petition questioning its use, and it went viral. Brominated vegetable oil is a flame retardant with health concerns that is banned from human consumption in Japan and Europe. More recently Kashi, a brand under the Kellogg's umbrella, lost a lawsuit that found that the "all natural" claim was false because it contained synthetically derived soy. And if you can remember all the way to last month, Subway agreed to remove azodicarbonamide, a chemical also used to make yoga mats and linked to a higher cancer risk, after public pressure. And let's not forget 'pink slime'.
Every year the fresh produce industry girds itself for the publication of the Dirty Dozen list by the Environmental Working Group. The levels of pesticides are so absurdly tiny that an independent toxicological report finds that a small child could eat 154 servings of apples every day without any impact from any residues that might be present. But "Dirty Dozen" is a catchy, viral sound bite that resonates with some consumers' fears and suspicions. As a result, the produce industry is forced onto the defensive, justifying something that is overwhelmingly safe and trying to poke holes in research methodology.
The trend is clear. Food is under increasing scrutiny from the public. Regardless of whether the amount of the ingredient present is deemed harmless by authorities, there can be a PR nightmare that the brand has to deal with.
The other common thread is the ability of the protagonists to paint the food industry as callous by creating catchy-sounding horror-ingredients: flame retardant, yoga mat chemical, pink slime, and 'dirty dozen'. I doubt a rallying cry for Subway to "stop using azodicarbonamide" would have gone viral.
So how do brand owners get ahead in the event of an unsubstantiated backlash generated by a vocal minority?
We think the PMA's approach is the most rational. Counter press-friendly, scientifically weak claims with independent, credible science and easy-to-grasp facts (like having to eat 154 apples). Get early alerts to stories going viral (the "dirty dozen" is at least published on schedule) and be prepared to respond fast. The fact is some NGOs, journalists, and consumers will never believe the industry. Dangerous chemicals should certainly be removed from food, and a brand may choose to reformulate rather than be convicted by a court of (misinformed) public opinion. But transparency is coming, and any 'spooky sounding' chemicals that have been used for years are about to get their 15 minutes of fame. Brands have an obligation to be ready and not get caught on the back foot.