At the Web Summit 2018 in Lisbon, CEO of San Francisco-based AgTech startup Plenty Matt Barnard analysed the impact of geography on the food supply chain, explained the low level of digitization in the agricultural sector and showed how indoor farming helps to balance between efficiency and flavour. We wrote down the highlights of his presentation.
How to maintain a balance between efficiency and flavour?
Efficiency or flavour, scale or price — these are the fundamental trade-offs we face when growing plants in a traditional greenhouse. Michelin-starred restaurants and farmers that serve those restaurants, particularly in Mediterranean climates, have access to the best fruits and vegetables. It is, however, hard to find a farmer that serves both a Michelin-star restaurant and the largest grocery store in the world as there is a tension between the grocery store scale and Michelin star quality. Plenty aims to eliminate this trade-off and deliver the products that are tasty, can be produced in large volumes and come at a good price.
Right now a traditional field or a classic greenhouse use 100 times more water than Plenty farms to produce exactly the same crops. Plenty grows 100 to 400 times the amount that a field grows on the same unit of scale over the course of a year.
Another question is pesticides. Consumers don’t know that organic produce still contains pesticides made of organic compounds. Most of us have about 29 pesticides in our body at any given time. Plenty is able to control the growing environment and therefore does not need to use pesticides for the grocery store scale. Products without pesticides taste better, are resource efficient and have a longer shelf life.
Technology is crucial for scaling the vertical farming solutions
The plants that grow on the indoor farm need energy sources to grow. Today, Plenty spends 1% of what they would have spent less than a decade ago to buy the same light capacity for a farm. The same thing happened with IoT sensors that were not effective enough and too expensive only 5 years ago. Machine learning and artificial intelligence which the company needs to drive the plant efficiency while optimising for flavour was not effective enough 5 years ago and 100 times more expensive than it is today.
Why does agriculture have the lowest digitization among all the industries?
Agriculture is a business like any other: the more control you have over the business the more chances it has to be successful. McKinsey put together a chart, where they looked at a dozen industries in terms of innovation and digitisation. In this chart, agriculture is at the bottom, right underneath construction.