There is no spoon - the real idea behind digitally native agriculture

September 1, 2022

At Tenacious Ventures, we invest at the intersection of digitally native agriculture and climate solutions. But when we talk about digitally native agriculture, it is easy to assume we're talking about the digitization of farming. While the digital transformation of farm operations is happening and will be impactful, what we mean by digitally native agriculture goes well beyond this.

Like many other industries, agriculture will benefit greatly from increased efficiency, accuracy and speed of digital technologies. We would characterize digital farming as things like:

  • Satellite and drone-derived imagery will provide better, more actionable information to farmers
  • Software-based farm management system will improve decision-making and increase collaboration
  • Connected machines and sensors will ensure that we only use what is needed, lowering inputs and increasing yields

Digitally native agriculture however is far more than just digital farming. It is about reimagining how systems can work and challenging the current structure of core elements of the agrifood value chain. 

If digital farming is the PC, then digitally native agriculture is the internet.

In 1979, VisiCalc and then in 1985, Excel were a step-change in business productivity. Before these tools, users battled with paper-based manual systems. With them, accounting and inventory management become far more efficient. But only 10 years later, eBay and then Amazon, which were both built natively for the internet, fundamentally changed how people went about buying and selling goods. This in turn changed our physical world, as new infrastructure (e.g., warehouses), transport networks, and jobs were required to enable online shopping.   

We are on the brink of similar transformations in agriculture and food that go beyond improving the efficiency of existing systems and unlock entirely new ways of working that are uniquely enabled by a digitally native approach. We see this as an opportunity to challenge traditional systems and create entirely new ways of getting jobs done - questioning the very existence of current structures.

We also see it as an imperative. Because while incremental and even step-change efficiency improvements are important, to meet the climate and sustainability challenges of 2030 and beyond, we need systems-level change.

What if there is no spoon?

In The Matrix (1999), Neo was asked to imagine that there was no spoon, to imagine a world beyond the one in front of his eyes. Earlier this year in Australia, car dealers were asked a similar question by German manufacturer Mercedes-Benz — imagine there are no dealers. This is such a huge systems-level change that the entire national Mercedes-Benz dealership network is taking the German manufacturer to court over their right to buy and sell Mercedes cars. Mercedes-Benz GmBH imagines a world without dealers, where customers buy (or even rent) cars directly. In this world, dealers are not needed; it only requires intermediate infrastructure like showrooms and customer service staff.

This new world, powered by the internet and by informed, conscious consumers connected via social media, is a system-level change. It threatens the entire existence of car dealers and a franchise they have controlled for decades.

We expect to see similar resistance in the food system as industrial-era structures are challenged by digitally native opportunities.

Imagining what’s possible in a digitally native food system.

Part of understanding how fundamental these changes will be is to appreciate how much agriculture is dependent on current structures, and the degree to which those structures have their origins in the industrial era. This is why we believe that a digitally native perspective is so important. Rather than looking for linear and incremental improvement, industry incumbents, venture investors, farmers, and startups alike have an opportunity to ask “what if we look through the current structure, and imagine entirely new approaches to our food system that are only possible in a digitally native world?”

Our portfolio companies are already doing this. 

Jupiter Ionics imagines a world without the centralized, emissions-intensive Haber-Bosch process or the fragile, global logistics that this fertilizer supply chain requires. They are building a world where on-farm production of ammonia (and more) can be done with just sunlight, air and water - on-demand with zero emissions. This is a systems level change to one of the key industrial artifacts of the green revolution.

SwarmFarm Robotics imagines a world of integrated agricultural autonomy where persistent industry challenges like spray drift cease to exist. In this world, swarming robots that have a fully digital understanding of the spray payload and their entire operating environment simply stop and wait for safety before spraying. This would completely avoid the problem in the first place, delivering environmental and health benefits as well as new opportunities for input companies to engage with growers and consumers.

Digitally native agriculture can unlock climate solutions

Incremental improvements won’t be enough to transition our global food system to a sustainable and resilient future full of affordable and nutritious food.

We see the transition following seven key pathways. Jupiter Ionics and SwarmFarm Robotics are good examples of those pathways in action: lower intensity production and democratized infrastructure

Digitally native agriculture is not the same as digital farming. Digitisation of farm operations is indeed critical to improve efficiency, but we will also need fundamental changes enabled by digitally native approaches to meet the massive challenges faced by our global food system. 

Key takeaways

  • Digitally native agriculture is far more than digital farming
  • Incremental and step-change productivity improvements are important, but not enough
  • Tenacious Ventures is working to unlock this vision, and looking for true believers to invest