Follow Up: June Florida Food Forum
Technology in the Food Production System
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On June 26th, the Florida Food Forum on Technology in the Food Production System was led by Ricky Stephens, Director of Digital Strategy at Agritecture Consulting.
Ricky began his talk by discussing how his passion for food led him to his current work with technology and urban agriculture.
“As I started getting deeper into what really drove me around food, it became clearer and clearer that it was also linked to environmental sustainability and human health,” he said. “You get to a point of no return where you understand enough where you feel responsible and that you need to take action. That’s what really happened to me.”
After moving back to New York, Ricky dove into the world of sustainable agriculture but soon realized there existed a gap for early-stage learners, students, and entrepreneurs who wanted to find access to resources. This led him to launch Ag-Tech X which was acquired by Agritecture Consulting in 2018.
What were the significant technology advancements of the 20th Century? What problems have they led to?
Ricky noted that with the mission of creating chloric-dense foods, there was a focus on increasing productivity through row crop equipment, crop breeding and genetics, chemical pesticide and herbicide development, and Haber-Bosch process.
“All of these things became crucial, but they also got us stuck in the system that we are now in,” he said. “As we got into the 21st century, we saw a mass increase in commodity crop productivity and homogeneity to food production in general, and also huge consolidation of American farming.”
Although this system was created with a focus on increasing food security, one of the more shocking statistic Ricky pointed to was that as of 2018, “1 in 8 Americans experienced food insecurity, which translates to 2.8 million residents in Florida.”
Other important problems Ricky discussed were: freshwater use, greenhouse gas emissions, and food waste.
“Here in the U.S., especially when it comes to leafy greens, we produce 98% of all of our leafy greens in Southern California and Arizona where there is extreme prone-ness to drought, and then we import that produce…You are essentially taking water from areas where we are running out of it and transporting it 3,000 miles or more,” Ricky explained. “For greenhouse gas emissions, generally the food production system is responsible for somewhere between 25 and 33% of total greenhouse gas emissions…And obviously food waste is a huge problem. About 1/3 of all food we produce is never consumed. When it comes to highly perishable items such as fruits and vegetables, estimates are closer to 50%.”
Along with the aforementioned problems, Ricky noted how decreasing farmers and increasing labor shortages are a large concern, as well as inequity, systemic racism and discrimination found in the food system.
How can we understand the “Agri-FoodTech” Landscape?
“In 2013, the total investment space for all of Agri-FoodTech was about $500 million. By 2019, it had hit almost $20 billion, a 40 time increase in less than 6 years.” Ricky referenced this statistic from a report compiled by AgFunder.com.
“Overall Agri-FoodTech is booming, but there are a lot of different categories that makeup that landscape.” Ricky goes on to describe some of the most popular sectors in AgTech such as: ag biotechnology, novel farming systems also referred to as commercial urban farming, and also farm management software, sensing and IoT (Internet of things).
What is driving this change?
Ricky explained that there are a number of reasons for such dramatic recent change: heightened consumer awareness, dietary shifts where consumers demand more plant-based options, increased demand for more “local” and “sustainable” products and an increase in research which connects conventional farming to negative environmental and human health effects.
From an investor’s perspective, the drivers are often more “high-level indicators,” he said. “A commonly heard indicator, especially around 2015, was that agriculture makes up about 10% of the world’s GDP, but only 3.5% of the total venture capital investment…So, that was pointing a lot of typical technology investors into the agriculture space.” With the possibility of gains in productivity and efficiency, that means more profit for investors. In addition, dietary shifts can provide an opportunity for early movers.
Ricky also addressed some of the driving trends in urban agriculture such as “rising demand for fresh, local and organic food” and “rising inequality,” as well as the importance of entrepreneurs identifying what solution most drives them in their work.
What are some types of startup financing and alternative investment opportunities?
“There is this dilemma where new technology can certainly address some of these problems when it comes to sustainability and other major issues that have been presented because of the conventional food system that we are now in, but at the same time that conventional venture capital financing approach can perpetuate the status quo,” said Ricky.
He pointed to the Food & AgTech Investor Sentiment Report, where investors were asked what their most valuable source of Deal-Flow was. “Warm Intros” was by far the greatest amount at 66%. “What that means is, if you are new to the technology start-up world, you aren’t going to be able to get a Warm Intro like somebody that has two exits under their belt and is connected to dozens of investors and can go out and raise $1 million just based on their resume alone.”
It was explained that it may be beneficial to look at alternative financing as there are a number of possible high-impact funding sources including: public and private grants, Community Development Financial Institutions funds (CDFI), non-extractive lending, equity crowdfunding, non-dilutive accelerators and impact investment.
Before opening up for an educational question and answer session, Ricky highlighted the opportunities, challenges and importance of Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA), small-scale urban farming, and regenerative agriculture and how Agritecture serves to educate and activate companies in these different areas. He provided a number of helpful resources on Agritecture’s website which can be found below.
Agritecture Counsulting Website
Agritecture Designer Course
Agritecture Digital Workshops
If you would like to get in touch with Ricky, send him an email at email@example.com.
Bio: Ricky Stephens is the Director of Digital Strategy at Agritecture Consulting, a global leader in urban agriculture planning services. Ricky manages all aspects of Agritecture’s digital strategy and online user engagement. He has led programming for multiple urban agriculture conferences and is heavily involved in the NYC Agriculture Collective. Before joining Agritecture, Ricky founded AgTech X, New York’s first incubator space dedicated solely to AgTech education and entrepreneurship. Previously, Ricky served as Manager of Marketing Analytics for Red Ventures, where he helped build out the company’s first international office in Brazil. He holds a BA in History from Davidson College.
Forum Host: Dell deChant is the Associate Chair of the Religious Studies Department at the University of South Florida and a member of the Board of Directors at the Florida Food Policy Council.
The Florida Food Forum is a free event. To support our work, please consider becoming a member or making a donation. For questions or more information, contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: The views of the presenters do not represent the views of the Florida Food Policy Council. We are a forum for the offering and sharing of information and encourage diversity and communication within the food system.