Change Agents Gather in Montana to Build the Future of Food

June 30, 2017

Last week I had the opportunity to join over one hundred other food system innovators on the banks of Montana’s Gallatin River at the inaugural Food Crunch Riverbank Conversations Un-conference. True to it’s name, we gathered around fire pits, fly rods, and food trucks in informal conversations about everything from urban food systems, to genetic engineering, to novel financing mechanisms for regenerative agriculture.

Riverbank Conversations is a gathering without a dais, pre-determined agenda or keynote speakers. The event convenes people with something interesting to say about food or agriculture — change agents — to an inspirational setting with enough infrastructure to promote interaction and with lots of things to do.

It was a truly inspirational and thought-provoking event where everyone contributed their (extremely diverse, yet highly credible) perspectives on the change they are trying to inspire in the global food and agriculture system. Here are a few brief takeaways.

The Future of Food and Farming is…Uncertain

Despite the incredible amount of expertise at this event, attendees did not even come close to a consensus about the future of the food system. With disruptive events ranging from Amazon’s Whole Foods acquisition to the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change, coupled with technologies such as genetic engineering, conceiving of even a “business as usual” scenario stretches the imagination.

Key issues on the forefront of the discussion included: farm succession planning; the role of sustainability in big food and agriculture; the positive and negative impacts of corporate consolidation; and whether the future of agtech is open source, collaborative and democratized, or concentrated in the hands of a few powerful (and mistrusted) players.

As Technology Outpaces Regulators, Building Trust with the Public is What Matters

I’ve had many conversations about some of the most controversial topics in food and agriculture today (e.g., subsidies, GMOs, organic food, and labeling regulations). These conversations are often polarizing and emotionally exhausting. Yet, the conversation on genetic engineering, attended by impact-first entrepreneurs, organic foodies, and other unlikely candidates, was exciting and inspiring.

This session- and more broadly the potential of new genetic engineering technologies (e.g., CRISPR-CAS9) — highlighted the opportunity we have right now to change the conversation from black and white, good and bad, technology vs. sustainability, to a dialogue on inclusive, science-based, sustainability-oriented innovations. As our regulatory systems struggle to keep pace with the speed of technological innovation fueled by the volume and influence of social media, there’s an opportunity to empower food system innovators and consumers with tools, information, and products to make informed, values-based decisions with their time and money. But it won’t be easy.

Transitioning More Land to Organic is a Huge Challenge + Opportunity

As demand for organic skyrockets in the US, there’s an opportunity to shift from importing significant amounts of organic commodities to producing them domestically. Yet, significant technological, economic, and social barriers remain. Here’s a list of leverage points we identified at FCRC. I’d love to hear other suggestions!

  • Champions with domain + financing expertise, especially around investment risks and mitigation strategies
  • Increased availability of high-quality organic know-how (e.g., inputs, agronomy services, machines)
  • Supporting infrastructure (e.g., silos, slaughterhouses)
  • Social skills (e.g., empathy) to help change mental models away from the status quo
  • Accurate measurement of ecological benefits

We’re Seeing Professionalization in Ag and AgTech, but We Need More Talent

The capital is increasingly there to support technological innovation in agriculture, but investors are still struggling to align capital with opportunities. Two areas for improvement are entrepreneurial talent and investor understanding of agriculture. The growing landscape of support resources for entrepreneurs is starting to help with the former. For the latter, a key will be attracting more operating partners with domain expertise who can help de-risk agriculture and agtech investments.

The Insect Revolution is Just Bug-inning

The pace of innovation in this emerging industry is astounding. And with the ability for multiple harvests in a controlled environment, it will continue to accelerate. Applications beyond farm animal feed and protein bars are already emerging (e.g., biofuels, industrial and food oils, pharma) as the cost of production is falling and ability to scale is increasing. With the development of an industry and a supply chain, we’ll also see specialization in processes, insect species, waste/feed sources, and of course technologies like robotics, sensors, and AI. Watch this space!

A huge thank you to the Food Crunch team for the invite, and to all the amazing attendees- true change agents in our global food and agriculture system. See you next year!