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Most of us recognize the enormous challenges faced by farmers to grow enough food to meet the demands of a world population that will exceed 10 billion people within the next generation.  To put this in perspective, imagine adding a medium-sized city of 250,000 people to our world – every day!  Compounding this challenge are many other factors with which farmers must contend, including shrinking available farmland per capita, constantly evolving pest and weed resistance, competition with expanding urban areas for scarce natural resources (such as water), and ever-increasing dramatic weather events.  

And even with these big worldly challenges, I've never been more optimistic or excited about the future of farming!  Technologies that were once barely imagined have become critical parts of today’s farming practices, and crop yields have never been higher.  At the same time, modern agriculture is producing more food on less land and is doing it all more sustainably than ever.

And even as larger research-based companies have continued to supply a steady stream of new chemistry, biological products, traits and seed varieties to farmers, a vibrant industry of smaller innovators has flocked to agriculture as well.  Collectively, these start-ups are incredibly varied in their scope, covering diverse areas such as:

  • Equipment and digital tools for the precise application of chemical inputs
  • Soil sensors tied to automatic irrigation systems for more efficient water use
  • Advanced robotics to free farmers from the most monotonous tasks
  • Techniques for identifying traits that will enable plant breeders to develop new seed varieties to better withstand the forces of nature and provide food with more nutritional value to consumers

The agricultural online investor platform AgFunder reported an investment of $4.6 billion in the ag and food sectors in 2015, almost double the amount invested in 2014. This huge commitment is likely to lead to more innovation in the coming years.  And despite the current tough commodity economic situation, there has been a further investment of $1.8 billion during the first half of 2016.  While this represents a slight reduction of capital when compared to last year, the number of individual deals has actually increased!  Clearly, venture capitalists and other investors continue to see value in agriculture.

During the last week in September, I had the pleasure of delivering a keynote address at the 2016 AgriVest conference in Rehovat, Israel.  Achieving food security in an arid environment with minimal natural resources is no easy feat, but it is indicative of how Israel has fully embraced agricultural innovation.  Along with about 400 other attendees, I enjoyed the showcasing of nascent ideas that may one day lead to tomorrow’s breakthrough.  The enthusiasm was contagious and felt like an extended episode of ‘Shark Tank,’ as entrepreneurs made their best argument for investment in their companies.  One pitch in particular that I loved involved a robotic arm for automatic apple harvesting.  As the gentleman explained, this was the first major innovation in this area since the Garden of Eden!

This enthusiasm for agricultural research is not confined to a single location.  Agricultural investor conferences are now being held across the world – from Silicon Valley to the Mid-West corn belt, and from London to the Middle East and Asia.  The ideas which spring from these conferences may help fuel agriculture’s success over the coming decades and enable farmers to meet the challenges of the future. If you get the opportunity, I strongly urge you to check out one of these conferences – especially if you have any doubt that innovation in ag is anything but alive and kicking!