Will Silicon Valley Transform Farming?

At this point, Silicon Valley’s promise to Change the World or Make the World a Better Place or any other iteration is more of a punch line than a catchphrase, especially with criticisms that range from abuse of customers’ privacy, to industry-wide sexism, to economic division. But now the tech world is trying to disrupt an area that truly could use some innovation: agriculture.

You’ve heard the statistics: the world population may hit between 9 and 12 billion within the century. The middle class is especially growing fast, and will likely continue to demand more meat and dairy, which take more energy to make compared to plant-based staples. The big question is: how are we going to feed all those people?

Earlier this year, Jonathan Foley, the Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, outlined five key steps to answering that question: freeze agriculture’s current footprint, increase food production on existing farmland, use resources more efficiently, shift diets, and reduce waste. At the most basic level, the first three of these goals pose an engineering problem: maximize the output (food) while minimizing the inputs (land, water, nutrients, energy). The last two items on the list are user issues: decrease the stress on the entire system by asking less of it—for example, eat less meat and other energy-intensive foods—and waste less of its output simply by only buying the food you need and, well, eating it instead of throwing it in the garbage.

An engineering problem is the best kind of problem for Silicon Valley. Although it’s taken awhile for the tech industry to truly focus on agriculture, there are now a slew of relevant startups (a Google search for agriculture + startup yields nearly two million hits) as well as new business incubators and accelerators, all of which aim to tackle ag’s various inputs and outputs.

The companies involved in this endeavor are increasingly bigger and more influential, too. Monsanto has been gobbling up startups for awhile, and has plans to spend at least $150 million to acquire more. Last week, the Thrive Accelerator Program—a group sponsored by Forbes and SVG Partners that aims to connect precision agriculture startups with food giants including Chiquita, Dole, and Taylor Farms—announced its 10 finalists, which will receive mentoring and compete for funding as well as the chance to get their tech into a big ag company. Thrive Accelerator is conveniently located in Salinas, California, an agricultural hub, which is in turn conveniently located about an hour south of Silicon Valley. And last month, Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman at Google, announced Farm2050, a collective that includes Google, DuPont, AgCo and more and is actively seeking pitches from yet more ag startups.

It remains to be seen whether the tech industry will be successful in applying its significant problem-solving skills to farming, particularly because the latter is an old-school business. Farmers are traditionally competitors, and may be hesitant to share information in big-data projects. Many consumers are wary of mixing technology with their food, too, as evidenced by the contentious fights over genetically-engineered foods and synthetic pesticides. Still, we’ll likely see more of this trend in 2015.