Small, yet mighty: how microorganisms will revolutionize food and agriculture

September 29, 2020

These days I spend a lot of time thinking about the future of food and agriculture. As an engineer by background, this can be uncomfortable- my natural tendency is to dig into the details, going down the proverbial rabbit hole to understand how something works or mentally jumping to evaluate the merits of possible solutions. But now as an investor, I’m working to tone the muscles in a very different part of my brain- a part that asks how an individual solution or advancement can be game changing for a whole industry.

So when I was invited to pick, and pitch, a “top tech trend” earlier this year at the Churchill Club Top Tech Trends debate, I saw it as an opportunity to explore a pretty niche and emerging area of science, and push myself to envision how big the impact could be.

The ‘top tech trend’ I pitched was how unseen microbiota, or ecosystems of microorganisms found in plants and animals, will revolutionize the food and agriculture industry by changing the way we think about human, animal, and plant health.

Why microbiota? As an early-stage investor, we get excited about placing bets on ideas that seem crazy- that the masses might not believe in yet, but that have the potential to be game changing. Something that is so fundamental yet largely unseen, but with so much potential to change how we think about the world around and within us, fits the bill perfectly.

Here was my pitch (slightly adapted for readability and with links to learn more).

Small, yet mighty, microorganisms

From Netflix recommendations to newsfeeds, we’ve seen how artificial intelligence and machine learning are powering the rise of personalization in the digital world.

But there’s another revolution in personalization coming. This time it’s in the physical world, and it will impact all of us- from our health and what we eat, to the plants and animals we depend on, and the climate around us.

This revolution is powered by another force, an invisible force that we’re only just starting to understand and measure — microorganisms.

Personalization for human health

The science of personalized health and nutrition so far has focused on the genome. For example, tailoring recommendations for our medicines, dietary choices, and supplements, to our individual genes.

But as genome sequencing and metagenomic analyses improve, we’ll unlock insights about how our genomes operate in tandem with our microbiomes. And our biomes, unlike our genome, are alive and constantly changing.

This means that soon we’ll understand how the trillions of microorganisms in our bodies impact our health. It means we’ll be able to monitor our microbiomes in real time, unlocking a whole new economy of personalized health and nutrition.

Imagine a future where it’s no longer just a FitBit on your wrist that you use to monitor your steps. Instead, you’ll swallow a tiny sensor that lives inside your gut, helping you to understand exactly what you need to eat.

Feeling stressed or tired? Look no further than your daily delivery of supplements, developed just for you based on real time monitoring of your gut health. Sprinkle them in a milkshake or take them as a pill, to get your gut microbiome back to full health

Or, taking medicine for a health problem? Your doctor might recommend specific foods tailored to your microbiome, to make sure your body reacts effectively to the medicine. Some promising research even suggests that the microbes themselves might be used as medicine, mimicking biological activities that keep us healthy.

A new age of precision ag

This future of personalized nutrition and medicine is not just about human health, though. Plants and animals also have biomes that influence their health, meaning this revolution has massive implications for agriculture and the environment.

For example, what if we’re able to understand and model the complex web of microbial activities in soil? We could then identify the precise mixes of inputs that we need in different climates, and to optimize the taste, texture, and even shelf life of our foods.

We’ll also bring precision nutrition and medicine to livestock. We’ll understand the microbiomes of ruminants- like sheep and cattle- so we can engineer out enteric emissions and reduce or even eliminate the 5.5% of global anthropogenic emissions caused by livestock today.

And finally, what if we are able to genetically edit microbes themselves? This kind of tailoring means we can accelerate the rates at which our soils become sinks for carbon- helping drawdown emissions and making sure agriculture is part of the solution to climate change.

There’s a revolution brewing

What would the world look like if we’re able to understand and control ourselves and our food system at the microbial level? In this future of precision food and health for humans, animals, and plants, the old adage “you are what you eat” will take on a whole new meaning.

What do you think about this future and the power of microbes? I’d love to hear from you!

For more on the future of food, check out the AgTech…So What? podcast or subscribe to the AgThentic newsletter.

Also, a huge shoutout to my colleague Komal Patel for help with the research & this article!