Start Here: Understanding the Sustainable Agriculture Ecosystem

Learn why entrepreneurs, investors, policy-makers, and everyday eaters around the world are becoming increasingly involved in new models for producing, distributing, & consuming food in our seven-part series.


#1: Summary of Issues: Population Growth, Land/Water Use, & Food Insecurity

 
 

With the global population expected to reach 9-10 billion by 2050, new agricultural strategies are needed in order to produce significantly more food on roughly the same amount of arable land, all while using fewer of the world's precious resources - namely fossil fuels and water. Currently, agriculture accounts for 70% of global freshwater usage, and demand is on the rise.

Even now, more than 1 in 10 people around the world suffer from hunger and nearly 1 in 3 are malnourished. Meanwhile, 1/3 of all food we produce is wasted. Finally, in the last 40 years, 1/3 of our arable land has been lost to erosion or pollution.


#2: Summary of Issues: Climate & Health

 
 

Our current food system is also a significant cause of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions - up to 33% of total - and deforestation - up to 80%. The release of these gases, coupled with the loss of carbon-sequestering forest land, is accelerating the rate at which changes to the Earth's climate occur - changes that are already causing major challenges for farmers around the world.

Furthermore, systematic forces that incentivize the production of commodity crops and processed foods have led to shifting diet and consumption patterns in a number of countries. This, in turn, has created a costly public health crisis with the rise of obesity, diabetes, and preventable cardiovascular diseases, which tend to affect poorer communities more so than wealthier ones.


#3: Designing Sustainable Solutions

 
 

By 2050, it's estimated that almost 3 billion more people will live in cities, a 75% increase from 2015. That means urban sprawls will continue to displace key farmland near cities; deforestation will persist in order to make up for the lost land; infrastructure & distribution systems originally designed for smaller populations will face extreme pressures; and the physical & societal divisions between where we produce food and where we consume it will grow even larger. That is, unless we are able to redesign the entire system and implement sustainable solutions.


#4: General Theses for Technology Disruption in Agriculture

 
 

So how can we grow more, using less? Enter technology.

Between 2012 and 2015 alone, investment in the AgTech sector increased nearly ten-fold, from $0.5 to $4.6 billion, according to AgFunder's annual report.


#5: The Case for Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA)

Imagine, in a rapidly changing climate, you could receive a guaranteed protection for your farm against such unpredictable changes.

That's just one of the many advantages farmers get from growing their crops indoors. With swiftly advancing technology, these farmers are now also capable of controlling the specific inputs that affect their plants' growth - in many cases from the touch of a screen. And with more focus being put on yield (producing more food per acre or square foot) due to land constraints, vertical farming has become a quickly growing method of choice - growth that is expected to continue.

Meanwhile, hydroponics - which encompasses any operation in which plants are grown in nutrient-rich solutions rather than soil and is commonly practiced indoors - was estimated to be a $21.4 billion industry in 2015.

 

Recommended Content:

1. *Fresh Box Farms: "Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA): More than Hydroponics"

2. Big Picture: "Hydroponics and the Future of Farming"

3. The New Yorker: "The Vertical Farm"


#6: Food Choice, Diet, & Consumer Transparency

In recent years, consumers have played a pivotal role in advocating for increased transparency as it pertains to their food purchases. And more transparency is a good thing, but it can also lead to added complexity - just deciding on which type of egg to buy, for example, has become an arduous task (see here or here for guidance).

Focusing on diet choices - particularly protein sources - can be a simpler place to start. As the accompanying chart illustrates, beef production is especially resource-dependent, requiring 20x more land and emitting 20x as much GHG than common plant-based protein sources. Additionally, a major 2016 study found an association between high animal-protein intake and mortality rate (see recommended content). 

And yet, global demand for beef is still projected to grow by a whopping 95% by 2050. The public health and environmental consequences of this would be devastating.


#7: The Innovators

Who are the companies leading this agricultural revolution? CB Insights recently released this helpful illustration, in which they plotted the roles of more than 100 companies currently altering the traditional operations of a farm.

But in order for our entire agricultural system to move in a healthier, more environmentally-sustainable direction, it will take the work of organizations on all ends of the food spectrum. Those focused on driving consumer demand toward plant-based over animal-based protein, for example, could have huge implications for the way new methods of farming continue to develop. See below for key resources identifying some of the most innovative organizations, across a wide variety of categories, that will help to shape the future of sustainable ag.

Recommended Content:

1. FoodTank's "28 Inspiring Urban Agriculture Projects" from July 2015 - includes 24 city-specific lists!

2. Agritecture's "Urban Agriculture Industryscape" from Sept 2015

3. FoodTank: "117 Organizations to Watch in 2017"

4. Epoch Times: "23 Innovative Plant-Based Food Companies"

5. CB Insights: "Protein that Crawls: 11 Startups Trying to Get Us to Eat Bugs"


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