Two hundred years ago, the plow and the mule were indispensable when it came to farming. One hundred years ago, it was the tractor. These days, it’s common to see advanced sensors, AI, and drones as essential farming tools, both in and out of the field. But because technology changes so quickly (just think about the fact that we’ve gone through 11 iterations of the iPhone in only 13 years), it can be hard to track the terms that get thrown around.
AgTech, FoodTech, new farming, precision farming, smart farming, regenerative farming…
The terms evolve almost as quickly as the technology itself. But one fact remains the same. Around the world, startups and entrepreneurs alike are working to make our food systems more efficient, precise, and productive. And understanding the essential differences between the sectors can help you keep an eye on how technology impacts your food—from seed to store.
One easy way to think about the difference between FoodTech and AgTech?
All corgis are dogs, but not all dogs are corgis
It might seem like a stretch, but this comparison is apt. Just think about it. All corgis are dogs, but not all dogs are short-legged companions to the Queen. Similarly, all AgTech is FoodTech, but not all FoodTech impacts what we do on the farm. Or, to put it another way, FoodTech is the umbrella term that refers to AgTech and also tech in food service and retail.
FoodTech encompasses AgTech but goes beyond it. It refers to technology and science that fundamentally change what food is, how it’s packaged, sold, and eaten. This relatively new industry already has plenty of heroes and villains. On the one hand, FoodTech has given us publicly-despised and misunderstood GMOs. On the other, it’s responsible for fully biodegradable packaging made from natural sources, such as IKEA’s mushroom-based packaging, or edible, water-soluble cassava plastics.
Just like FoodTech can be broken down into six main categories, we can break AgTech down into three main applications. Forbes contributor Erik Kobayashi-Solomon outlines these as tech-assisted farming, new farming, and revolutionary farming.
This aspect of AgTech lives up to its name. It refers to how current technology can improve current farming techniques. For example, the recent introduction of farming and the Internet of Things, which has revolutionized how farm systems are connected—from in-field monitoring to customer service. Or the way we can use apps and smartphones to monitor everything from irrigation to predicted weather. The most important thing about tech-assisted farming is that it isn’t developing ag specific technology. It’s repurposing what already exists to make ag more efficient.
One exciting example is Trace Genomics, which has leveraged the recent buzz around genomics and biomarkers to help farmers make soil healthier. Leveraging technology similar to companies like 23andMe, researchers use proprietary metrics to provide information about soil health. This enabled them to help lettuce growers in the Yuma and Salinas area get to the root of what was causing fusarium wilt in their crops. Before Trace Genomics leveraged this existing genomics science, there was no diagnostic capable of detecting that particular disease.
Tech-assisted farming is crucial because it requires innovation and outside-the-box thinking to achieve unprecedented results. It’s taking the tools we already have to do the things we already do more efficiently.
Alternatively, new farming is a school of AgTech that uses existing technology to change how we farm. For an example, look no further than the world’s largest “vegetable factory,” an indoor farming company that’s reimagining how we grow produce. Using existing LED and hydroponic technology, Mirai can grow up to 10,000 heads of lettuce each day. And they do it using 40 percent less power, 80 percent less food waste and 99 percent less water. And that’s just one application of vertical farming.
Other new farming pioneers are looking to satellite imaging to get the birds-eye-view on the fields. Using this sophisticated tech, farmers can monitor their crop health in real-time, from anywhere in the world. Imagine if you could examine crops, as if you were standing in the field, from the safety and convenience of your home office. Even reviewing the images every week can save farmers time, money, and effort.
Revolutionary farming is perhaps the most exciting—and experimental—sector of AgTech. In revolutionary farming, we develop new technology specifically to support new agricultural products and practices. That could include year-round farming through aquaponics. Or the development of lab-grown meat to replace industrial slaughterhouses.
What we can accomplish with AgTech
Because of the ever-changing nature of technology, we’re only just beginning to understand the real, practical applications and what we can achieve through AgTech. If you had told a farmer 50 years ago that we could build cost-effective, low energy vertical farms in underground tunnels, or grow meat from cells in the lab, they might have laughed in your face. But today, those practices aren’t just accepted. They’re celebrated for their innovation. Through AgTech, we’re learning how to make farming more precise, mine data that’s more reliable, and make our food systems safer and more efficient.
More precision in farming
Thanks to precision sensors and advanced data, we can maximize the resources we use in the field. Farmers no longer have to apply water, fertilizers, and pesticides uniformly across entire acres of land. Instead, we can use the minimum quantities required. Plus, we can target particular areas or even treat individual plants differently. That means we’re optimizing resource use, not by the square acre, but by the square inch.
More reliable data
One of the biggest challenges farmers have faced from centuries is handling data. How can we gather reliable, timely information from a nearly infinite number of data points to make educated decisions? These days, we have more information than ever before at our fingertips. That means we’re more accurately monitoring and managing natural resources, communicating better with our consumers, and managing inventories more easily.
For example, with the advanced sensors we use on Northerly’s farm, I know at any given moment exactly how full my silos are as well as the temperature and moisture levels. I know how many bags of oats I have in the warehouse and the water level of crops in the field. And I can communicate this information to my bulk partners and you, the consumer, in just minutes.
Greater control for safer food
AgTech also gives us more control over how plants and animals are produced, processed, stored, and distributed. That means we’re improving the safety of our food. We can more closely monitor crops and herds for disease and illness that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. This lets us act well before it’s too late. Through AgTech, we’re reducing our environmental and ecological impact, while keeping America’s food systems safer.
What we can accomplish with FoodTech
If we can achieve all of this just through AgTech, imagine how much more we can accomplish through the broader umbrella, FoodTech. Experts agree that FoodTech is shaping the future of food—not just how it’s grown, but what it is, how it’s processed and packaged, and how we cook and consume it. These efforts are to improve food’s nutritional value, reduce waste, and make our global food systems more sustainable.
For example, one FoodTech company is combating food waste through an innovation that extends the shelf life of fresh produce. Apeel Sciences has created a tasteless, odorless powder that keeps produce fresher for longer. The plant-derived coating slows water loss and oxidation—two of the primary factors that cause food spoilage. On the consumer side, McCormick’s, a century-old spice company, is using data and AI to predict new popular flavor combinations and improve on old ones.
But it’s a medical technology that might usher in the future of FoodTech. According to a recent National Geographic article, gene editing has the potential to change the foods we eat every day. It can boost flavor, disease resistance, and yields, and even tackle allergens like gluten. Most importantly, especially when it comes to public perception, scientists say they’re working only with nature’s own tools.
In medicine, gene editing has the potential to cure inherited diseases, including some forms of heart disease and cancer. Scientists are also looking for applications in treating rare conditions, such as a disorder that causes vision loss. In agriculture, gene-editing can create more nutritious plants with higher yields that are impervious to drought and pests. These traits could help crops endure more extreme weather patterns as climate change continues to impact farmers.
With advances in gene editing, the pace of crop improvements is accelerating. In fact, the first gene-edited crops are already on the market. Today, we have healthier soybean oil and more resilient canola plants thanks to this exciting FoodTech advancement.
FoodTech and AgTech: two pieces of the food system puzzle
While the definitions and categorizations might be in flux, one thing is sure: FoodTech and AgTech are shaping the future of food. And they’re shaping it for the better. Scientists, farmers, and entrepreneurs around the world are changing the way we think about food. Thanks to technology, we’re growing, processing, producing, and consuming in more sustainable ways. And it’s a good thing, too. In just 30 years, we have to increase food production by nearly 70% to feed the global population.
Here at Northerly, we’re proud to be at the cutting edge of AgTech, and vocal supporters of FoodTech innovators. This shows in our use of environmentally-friendly packaging, our minimally-processed oats, and the advanced data we use to monitor our crops each growing season. Learn more about how Northerly is committed to feeding today without starving tomorrow.