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Carter Williams, CEO and Managing Partner, iSelect Fund
For too long, the fields of agriculture and healthcare have been siloed.
Ag insiders tend to focus on the nuts and bolts of field operations, farm management, yield concerns, etc while the medical community studies chronic diseases and looks for new treatments and cures
But this separation ignores the bigger picture: that what we eat has a direct correlation on how we feel.
In fact, a growing body of evidence demonstrates that chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease can be traced back to diet, specifically the sugars and allergens that cause inflammation. The more that we understand about disease and the better that we understand the science of food, the more clearly we see how interconnected they are. Solutions to these issues, then, are not necessarily limited to healthcare alone but have to also consider the reality of today’s ag and food systems.
This is where innovation in agriculture is heading.
A third way
We spend about $1.7 trillion a year in the United States on food, and we spend another $1.2 trillion annually on health care related to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic conditions that can be traced back to nutrition. In fact, the U.S.’s top five diet-related chronic diseases cost the U.S. economy $1 trillion each year, in terms of the estimated cost of direct medical costs and the indirect impact of productivity losses due to illness and premature death.
The next question for innovators, then, is how do we solve both of these problems at once?
It starts with the food system. Or, I should say, both of the food systems, because there are currently two of them.
System A is what we think of as Big Ag. It’s soy, it’s corn. It was first conceived after World War II, productionized by the United States, and on a worldwide basis has delivered calories at scale affordably and cheaply.
System A works. It has done a phenomenal job of providing food security for a significant portion of the world. Unlike in centuries past, a not insignificant segment of the population doesn’t have to worry about where their three meals a day will come from. On the whole, food is relatively inexpensive and, at least in the U.S., fairly abundant.
But the byproduct of this approach over time is it creates later-stage life health issues. You eat too many processed sugars, you’re at risk of developing obesity and diabetes. Spend too many years eating nothing but red meat, your cholesterol and blood pressure will likely suffer. Yes, industrial agriculture brought food to the masses, but with associated costs that are just now becoming clear.
The alternative to this is System B, which is a food system that’s more focused on healthy, nutritious food. It’s organic. It’s fresh. It’s better for us. It’s also more expensive and much harder for many people to access since it doesn’t scale very well. Those who live in System B tend to live longer, healthier, happier lives, but it isn’t cheap, putting it out of reach of most of the world, not to mention most Americans.
It’s time for a third approach to agriculture and food.
It’s time for System C.
It’s time to combine all of the benefits of today’s system, without the downsides, and make it as affordable (or more affordable) than food is now.
System C is a new approach that understands that consumers base a significant amount of their purchase decisions on price.
It’s a system that’s based around making good, healthy options cheaper and more attractive than today’s “bad” foods. When food tastes good, you’re going to eat it. And if it’s less expensive, you’re going to buy it. If more nutritious is less expensive than junk food, then you’re going to eat that as well.
How do we get there? By empowering agtech innovators to solve the big problems that today are holding us back.
Reducing waste: Waste is a massive problem when it comes to controlling costs, including in-field and supply chain waste. How can we create better crop protection systems that make sure we are able to optimize the harvest? How can we develop better food safety systems to reduce post-harvest loss and issues during processing? This will help us solve for the shortage of good foods.
Improving ingredients: As we look to redefine the food system, we need to identify better, healthier ingredients that can be replacements for what’s used today. Food companies need to be able to readily adopt these better ingredients without having to go through and do a lot of experimentation and a lot of reformulation in order to improve their products.
Building better proteins: Animal protein is not going away, but we need to make it better and more scalable to feed more people. But there are also a variety of ways of producing new proteins, whether they be plant-based proteins or animal-free proteins such as those that are made from either yeast bacteria or enzymatic processes.
Agtech is revolutionizing agriculture, but what it’s really exposing is the fact that everything is interconnected. Soil health impacts nutrient uptake. Increased crop biodiversity helps boost available protein. The foods we eat directly correlate with our long-term health.
It’s time for a new food system that understands this.