Agriculture and food industries face tyranny of numbers



Silicon Valley loves large numbers. Millions of users. Billions of transistors. Trillions in market cap. Exponential return on investment.

Silicon Valley also loves disruption. Tech innovations routinely obliterate entire industries, and companies are lauded for the ability to reduce overhead while increasing productivity.

But there are some disruptive numbers — about food prices, heatwaves, sea levels and megadroughts, to name a few — the Bay Area tech community is struggling to solve:

● 11.6% — Increase of food prices at home in the Bay Area over a year ago

● 109º F — Hottest temperature ever for San Jose, recorded on Sept. 6

● 1,200 — Years since a megadrought worse than now affected the American West

These numbers are not just scary, they’re deadly. That does not mean, however, they are inevitable.

In the late 1950s, the tyranny of numbers threatened to stall the nascent computing industry. Computer engineers couldn’t improve performance without wiring ever more components to each other, stringing and soldering them by hand. Jack Kilby, a new employee at Texas Instruments, and Robert Noyce, co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor, each solved the problem by inventing a type of integrated circuit, transforming the world forever.

Today, it is the agriculture and food industries facing their own tyranny of numbers. Agrifood, as it is called, accounts for about 12% of global GDP, more than 40% of all jobs and 26% of greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the millions, billions and trillions involved, agrifood has received little attention from Sand Hill Road.

That’s changing.

World leaders gathered earlier this month in Egypt for COP27, the United Nations Climate Change Conference. And on Nov. 17, at the THRIVE Global Impact Summit in San Jose, startups from the United States, Canada, Australia, Israel, Nigeria and Singapore pitched bold solutions to industry leaders who will be sharing new tools of the trade to transform the industry.

While California leads the nation in many areas of climate policy, we need more sustainable stakes in the ground. Three that stand out:

● Food security around the world was actually improving until the pandemic, worldwide inflation and Russia’s war in Ukraine wiped out a decade of gains. Today, more than 800 million people are malnourished or starving. We need a new commitment to fund agrifood technologies that mitigate desertification, flooding, food waste and supply chain disruptions.

● Healthier soil — rich in nutrients and low in contaminants — does far more for farmers than produce higher-quality crops. Yields go up. Erosion goes down. More carbon is captured. Fewer fertilizers are required. We need a new commitment to developing and popularizing the sustainable farming practices that enrich both the soil and family farms.

● Greenhouse gas emissions are endangering the very farms generating planet-heating emissions. Twenty-one percent of carbon dioxide, 53% of methane and 78% of nitrous oxide emitted into the atmosphere come from agrifood systems. We need a new commitment to changing how farms operate from the ground up.

We are no longer living on borrowed time. We’re stealing it. If the agrifood industry cannot reduce and offset its emissions, the question will no longer be “What’s for dinner?” but instead “What’s dinner?”

To cultivate a better future, Silicon Valley can look to its past. Back when the valley was filled with orchards. Back when computer engineers toiled against the tyranny of numbers. Back when Jack Kilby glued a sliver of germanium with protruding wires to a glass slide and Robert Noyce discovered silicon worked better.

The microchip was born. Silicon reigned supreme. The tyranny of numbers was vanquished.

Let’s do it again.

John Hartnett is the founder and CEO of SVG Ventures|THRIVE, an innovation and investment platform working to advance the future of food and agriculture.



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