Davos on the Delta
Refresh Working Group member Kevin Krueger manages food program purchasing and sustainability programs for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, an organization that is leading the way the world understands, treats and defeats childhood cancer and other life-threatening diseases.
Davos on the Delta—an annual conference focused on exploring Food System Innovation and connecting entrepreneurs, investors, and food and agriculture industry insiders—met for the third time in Memphis, Tennessee last month. The gathering has become an important venue for founders of agtech startups to learn more about the pain points farmers, buyers, and corporate leaders are experiencing and to connect with prospective investors. This year the focus of the event was broadened to include a more systemic look at what is and isn’t working within our food system, and left us with some interesting takeaways.
Rob Dongoski of Ernst & Young LLP gave a compelling talk on “Paradoxes Defining the Global Food System” that became a touchstone throughout the conference. U.S. consumers demand more protein in nearly every product category, even as they grow increasingly uncomfortable about foods with higher carbon footprints. Inconsistent and complex debates have emerged over attitudes toward science, with many embracing the scientific consensus on climate change but denying it when it comes to genetically modified crops, or vice versa. People are migrating to cities but food production is not moving, increasing the strain on nearby farming regions to increase production. Solutions to food system challenges will need to be robust and collaborative if they are to stand a chance of surviving in this complex marketplace.
A casual observer easily could have walked away from early sessions with the impression that the era of commodity crops is coming to an end. Decommoditization, a shift away from the highly specific and standardized industry-wide criteria that allow harvested grains like field corn or soybeans to be aggregated into large national and global markets, could be driven by upcoming trends like personalized nutrition and widespread access to gene editing techniques.
When the panel on the topic convened, though, participants seemed eager to temper expectations. Panelists pointed out that commodities are an important form of risk management, offering markets that are relatively predictable and stable compared to many specialty crops, and urged farmers to think in terms of capturing value for their operation wherever they could rather than focus on whether any given crop should be called a “commodity”. If we can create stronger linkages between forward-thinking growers and buyers, sharing more information on future needs and plans, we can take at least some of the uncertainty out of the equation and gain the benefits of diversified crop availability without adding as much risk.
“Farmers Don’t Want to be Guinea Pigs”
A comment from the audience during a Q&A session summed up this perspective, clearly shared by many of the farmers in attendance. Agtech is coming into its own as a category, with innovators increasingly focusing on creating ground-up solutions for food and agriculture rather than taking tech that has been useful elsewhere and adapting it. As this focus on their operations and theoretical needs increases, many farmers feel as though they are being treated as prospective sales rather than partners.
AgLaunch, a local to Memphis group that works to build collaborative networks between the agtech startups they support and farmers and others in the food value chain, was represented at the conference as a model of connecting agtech and farmers in meaningful and effective ways.
Generalities don’t often work in the food and agriculture space. Consumers want clear lines that they can draw between “good” and “bad” products and companies, and companies and investors are working overtime to learn “what consumers want.” The organizations that are emerging as leaders in this uncertain space are the ones who establish their own values rather than endlessly sift consumer sentiment in the hopes of finding some, and those that are nimble enough to move with the changing tides.