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The Root of It: What it takes to rejuvenate the ag ecosystem

The root of it what it takes to rejuvenate the agricultural ag ecosystem zeakal

To understand the history behind agriculture’s current challenges, teachings from complementary sectors, and approaches to encourage innovation, ZeaKal hosted a webinar series called The Root of It featuring conversations with industry experts. 

While recordings of The Root of It are available on YouTube, takeaways from the series include:

How the past helps us understand the future of our food system

Many of the difficulties facing agriculture today sprung from a food system that responded to public priorities of the past. Decades ago, the U.S. agricultural supply chain served an urbanizing population located across vast distances. Industry officials prioritized efficiency, volume, uniformity, transportability, and safety, and established standards to achieve this.

“Our [current] problems resulted from what used to be considered solutions,” explained Alan Bjerga, author of Endless Appetites, and SVP, National Milk Producers Federation. “We have issues with sustainability, and should prioritize better nutrition and diversification.” In other words, we inherited our food system—one that must evolve to meet the needs of the present.

Simply dismantling the existing system is not feasible, though. “There are too many jobs tied up with [it]. People can, for the most part, cheaply and efficiently feed themselves,” said Bjerga. “The question becomes: how fast can change occur, and how can we repurpose the existing system? Can you move far enough, fast enough?”

Meaningful change can occur, Bjerga emphasized, with adequate policy incentives. This would align groups across a fragmented supply chain to work towards a common goal while still delivering value. “If you want to save the small farm, you need to create policy incentives to enable them to compete,” added Bjerga. “You need incentives to work towards net zero.”

What agriculture can learn from cannabis

Today, agriculture is more insular, with talent largely coming from similar backgrounds. This has arguably led to slower innovation adoption since cross-functionality is less common. Cannabis, by necessity, drew on the expertise of complementary industries, including the pharmaceutical industry. Individuals from these industries brought best practices that can now be adapted to cannabis. The end result is a holistic supply chain that works in partnership rather than in competition.

“We understood that we needed experts from different areas to execute properly,” said Mary Dimou, former Senior Director at RIV Capital. “Due to the amount of capital in the sector, we attracted every experienced professional we could. There are likely be large issues for agriculture that would be more effectively tackled from a common front.”

Next, from a marketing perspective, agriculture struggles to help consumers understand the processes behind end products. This lack of education can cause fear and distrust.

On the other hand, cannabis, being tightly regulated and limited in its marketing, made education a primary outreach effort, explained Dimou. After years of prohibition, building consumer trust in legal cannabis as safe is paramount to creating a strong market and retaining loyal customers. Agriculture can take notes on how to take ownership of the message, dilute fear, and build trust.

Why agricultural innovation requires increased cooperation

Paul Schickler, Owner, III Ag, LLC and former president, DuPont Pioneer (now Corteva) believes bold leadership, cooperation, and nimbleness can make the ag ecosystem more conducive for innovation.

Part of the challenge, Schickler emphasized, is that the larger ag companies generally have a ‘Not Invented Here’ mindset. It makes them reluctant to pursue external innovation. He explains that the research pipelines for most major agriculture companies are focused and narrow, with minimal appetite for innovation outside core areas.

“I’m not seeing concrete evidence of companies stepping out to create a new space outside of that focused, aggressive portfolio,” Schickler said. “I think a leader will ultimately own a new opportunity outside their core focus.” Consumer pressure or a consortium of start-ups may spur system-wide change.

Crucially, various parties must cooperate. A single invention is unlikely to bring agriculture to a new, more resilient trajectory. “A lot of solutions are a set of discrete components that need to be combined together,” Schickler said. “We should look at partnerships and systems as opposed to individual technology answers. Further, we must bring new people into big ag and big food.”