Can the Midwest Own Innovation In BigFood Agriculture?

As the innovation ecosystem in Chicago and the Midwest expands with almost breathtaking speed, we are establishing ourselves as best-of-class in fields such as nanotechnology, robotics, digital and financial tech, material science and advanced manufacturing. I want to add one more area in which the Midwest can be recognized as the world’s leader in innovation. It is perhaps the most obvious and least recognized of all—agriculture.

The Chicago region has obvious advantages in terms of both tradition and the vibrancy of its innovation ecosystem. Leadership in agricultural innovation on a large scale is there for the taking. But we are not the only ones to know that. The race is on to become the AgTech home for Big Agriculture (or Big Food), with creation of an enormous number of jobs and value up for grabs.

As an entrepreneur, I look for opportunity. Big Food presents some of the best opportunities in the last few years. Here are some reasons why. The International Association of Agricultural Economics projects worldwide population will grow 35 percent by 2050, leading to a 59 to 98 percent increase in demand for food. There are two ways to meet this hunger. Cut down more forests to open more arable land—an approach that is both unwise and unsustainable—or find new ways through bioengineering and precision farming to increase yields from existing farmland.

The latter is where opportunity lies for the Midwest economy. We have the talent, the resources and tradition as the breadbasket of the world to emerge quickly as the leader in new approaches to production-scale agriculture.

Most urbanites relate to disruption in agriculture largely through farm-to-table distribution or the vertical urban farming movement. This is rather a narrow view of agriculture. Let’s recognize where the big opportunity lies—production-scale agriculture, which already represents such a huge segment of the Midwest economy. Just a 1 percent increase  in production driven by innovation in sustainable precision farming, bioengineering and supply chain systems would trigger enormous change that would impact generations to come.

We are not, of course, starting from scratch. There are several startups at the forefront of this movement including FarmLogs, Agrible, Farmlead, 640 Labs and my own firm Aker, to name a few. The venture capital community is getting on board through initiatives such as Cultivian Sandbox, Serra Ventures and Tyson Foods’ new venture fund. State policies and organizations like Farm Illinois are also contributing to the growth and relevance of precision-farming technologies in production agriculture.

But if we are going to do for innovation in agriculture what Silicon Valley is to tech and New York is to media, we have to act now. The Midwest trails in early-stage investment capital in this industry. There must be more with a specific focus incubating production agriculture startups. That suggests the rest of the innovation ecosystem, especially the VC community, should ramp up before others emerge elsewhere. Rest assured that I’m not the only person involved in the future of agriculture who recognizes the potential for leadership in the growth of production-level agriculture. If we don’t seize it, another region will.

There is no greater need in the world than sustainable ways to feed the growing number of people on earth. There is no more logical place for Big Food research, entrepreneurial activity, systems development, to take place than right here.

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