What critical problems are my actions solving today? Can we in the agri-food tech innovation space ask ourselves this question more frequently?
We live in a time of unprecedented innovation and unprecedented challenges. The determining factor of this decade will be our ability to direct our collective impact toward solving massive, global problems, and the agri-food sector certainly is massive and global with its fair share of substantial problems.
When we focus on solving a problem, we can see remarkably rapid progress. Look at how quickly the world has rallied to develop new vaccines in response to the global Covid-19 pandemic as a clear example of how rapidly solutions can emerge when we direct our efforts toward a common goal.
Over the last seven years or so, I’ve seen the rise of what we now call the agri-food tech innovation ecosystem. It has been exciting to watch the growth in this space but it appears we are experiencing growing pains. Simply put, irrespective of the elevated numbers of actors and resources stepping in, we are not seeing the speed and scale of collaborative action necessary to solve our critical problems in this sector.
The task of feeding 10 billion people by 2050 sustainably, affordably and nutritionally without the implications of climate change is enough of a challenge on its own; couple this challenge with changing weather events, decreased soil quality and yield predictability and the scale of this challenge is something that is truly difficult to get your head around. The good news is that the primary tool required to solve these challenges is commonly available across the globe: collaboration.
Rachel Carson, esteemed conservationist of the 1950s credited with advancing the global environmental movement, stated, “The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery, not over nature but of ourselves.” Today, it is imperative that we heed her words. While there is increased discussion of the “need for collaboration” in the agri-food tech space, there simply aren’t enough platforms harnessing effective collaborative impact at the speed and scale needed. In most cases in this ecosystem, the solutions to challenges are present but we have yet to master ourselves to work together to implement needed solutions.
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At our very first Mixing Bowl conference in 2014, we outlined the mission of our organization to connect food, agriculture and technology innovators to work through four steps we called the “Staircase Progression to Solving Food/Ag Challenges.” The four steps were:
- See Problems
- Seek Solutions
- Solve Problems
- Scale Solutions
Each one of these steps is necessary but, at present, it feels like the weighting across the ecosystem’s four steps is off.
It seems that 80% of the current effort in agri-foodtech is seeing problems and seeking solutions and only 20% is focused on solving problems and scaling solutions. How can we invert the levels of efforts to focus on solving problems at scale?
Seeing problems refers to those that are raising awareness of the issues we face. Notably in this area are influential pieces like Jonathan Foley’s 2014 National Geographic cover story “Feeding 9 Billion” or Drawdown from Project Drawdown, journalists like Dani Neirenberg at Food Tank or Naomi Starkman at Civil Eats. Also worth noting are organizations raising awareness of particular issues like ReFed (food waste) and Kiss the Ground (soil regeneration). Some publications, like Danielle Gould’s Food+Tech Connect, and Louisa Burwood-Taylor’s AgfunderNews, as well as many of the growing number of agri-foodtech conferences, are raising awareness of issues and also looking at the second step—seeking solutions.
Seeking solutions refers to finding and supporting those developing solutions to challenges. It may seem hard to believe but there was a time only a few years ago when we were worried there would not be enough technology start-up innovators interested in the agri-foodtech space. Now we have not only seen an enormous number of start-ups enter this space but an entire industry arise to act as middlemen to support start-ups and promote them to potential customers and broader audiences. Sara Nolet of Agthentic has an agri-foodtech startup resource tool that maps 155 different agri-foodtech startup resource support organizations like incubators, accelerators, pitch events and prizes. In the last couple years, the “seeking solutions” step in the staircase has seen an explosion of energy and growth. One has to question, however, if the energy in this space is really getting us to the next step in the staircase—solving problems.
Solving problems is different than supporting the success of a startup. It is also not “convening,” design thinking ideation and prototyping, or creating a common vision or blueprint for action. As simple as it sounds, it is taking the necessary actions to solve a problem. In this sector we have seen the rise of intermediaries claiming to be convening for collaborative action— but, respectfully, most of these platforms are falling short on delivering results. Chatter on Zoom is likely far removed from doing the real work needed to solve problems.
Let’s not forget basketball legend John Wooden’s advice to “Never mistake activity for achievement.” We need to see more action that bring results, like, among others, the focused action to regenerate the Loess Plateau of China, enacting sustainable farming practices and lifting 2.4 million people out of poverty; Denmark’s success in decreasing food waste by 25% in five years; the World Central Kitchen’s efforts to feed millions as “Food First Responders”; or Envirofit’s delivery of safe cooking stoves to over 8m people in energy poverty around the world.
In U.S. agriculture I am encouraged by the promise of two platforms aiming to solve problems: The 97-year old Farm Foundation has reinvented itself as an “Accelerator for Practical Solutions for Agriculture” and the recently rebranded US Farmers & Ranchers in Action is now focused on “Agriculture in Action, Sustainability in Progress”. Closer to the consumer, I am watching the newly formed Food for Climate League that wants to develop a new food and climate narrative, democratize sustainable eating, and “tackle the climate crisis bite by bite.” Even these groups, however, will admit we need more action and results—and scaled solutions.
Scaling solutions takes on numerous forms, including expanding what has worked for one region or problem and applying it to solve other problems or work in other regions. The truth is there are even fewer platforms effectively scaling up working solutions in food and agriculture. It was good to see the success of the UN’s World Food Programme recognized with a Nobel prize in 2020 for its efforts to fight hunger and famine at immense scale across the globe since 1961. I hope the organizers of the 2021 UN FAO World Food System Summit harness the time, money and attention going into that event to solve problems at scale.
For my part, I want to focus my efforts toward those effectively doing the work to solve problems and scale solutions for real change. And I want to continually ask myself:
What critical problems are my actions solving today?