As short-term chaos dovetails with longer term considerations of the impact of the coronavirus shutdowns, a persistent question has been how the food supply chain will fare. One major concern is a coming labor shortage thanks to a bottleneck in H-2A guest worker visas, which provide the agriculture industry with its seasonal workforce.
Just how big an impact the coronavirus will have on agriculture is unclear, but one bright spot may come from the recent growth of the agtech and foodtech markets, which are helping drive efficiencies in the food supply chain. Agrifood venture company Finistere Ventures recently released its "2019 AgriFood Tech Investment Review," which found that venture capital has been flooding agtech with backing over the past year, driving developments that in some cases could help mitigate disruptions.
"While more money pours into advanced crop protection technologies, indoor farming, alternative proteins, ingredient refinement, and supply chain advances, investment in mainstays like digital ag is beginning to drop as leaders start to emerge," said Arama Kukutai,co-founder and partner at Finistere Ventures. "Likewise, those investment reallocations will help drive a healthier, more sustainable food and ag ecosystem where fundamental value has to be demonstrated."
What's more, global investment has been reasonably well distributed geographically, an important factor when addressing the role agtech may have on mitigating losses related to the fallout from the pandemic. While the United States continues to take the leadership role in agtech investments, the Finistere report makes it clear Europe is closing the gap and doubled capital deployed into agtech deals in comparison to 2018.
Agtech is a huge sector and anything but monolithic, but in general the term refers to technologies that help decrease inputs, increase yields, and mitigate loss.
For example, the scope of the global crop loss problem is staggering. Worldwide, farmers lose about $750B from crop loss each year. About a third of all food grown is lost.
But a host of new techniques known collectively as "precision agriculture" or "agricultural intelligence" can help. One company, Taranis, just unveiled a novel weed identification system that combines computer vision, satellite and drone imagery, and AI to tell farmers what kinds of weeds are attacking their crops in real time, empowering the farmers to fight back.
Taranis's platform starts with imagery collected from satellites, planes, and drones, providing three distinct resolution scales to mine data from. The combines combines the field imagery and is using AI deep learning technology to recognize crop health issues.
In Japan, a company called Spread, a sustainable vegetable producer, has been allocating almost all of the labor involved in growing thousands of heads of lettuce at its facility in Kyoto to robots. The only task that will still be performed by humans is planting the seeds.
Preceding fears of a pandemic-induced crunch, Spread is responding to concerns in Japan that an aging population will soon result in a potentially crippling labor shortage. The government and tech industries are pushing the development of robotics to take over from humans, a line of thinking that may soon become familiar in the ag sector in Western countries.
Similarly, companies like Toshiba, Fujitsu, Panasonic, and Sharp are making moves into the agriculture sector with innovations like farm robots and technologies to aid indoor farming at scale.
Whether the technologies under development will help relieve near-term pressure to the food supply is a tough thing to assess, especially given that new technologies like drones and machine vision are being grafted onto older agronomy practices.
But the jolt should help hasten the adoption of many agtech tools and spur development of new solutions, and that's good news in the long term. The U.N. estimates that by 2050 earth will need to sustainably produce 70 percent more food than we do today, as measured by calories, to keep up with global population growth.