agriculture innovation disrupts the game

Disrupt the Paradigm and You Might Save the World

To create, sometimes you have to destroy.

In marketing, to create a new niche, sometimes you have to blow up the old one. Or at least disrupt it enough that consumers see the value in abandoning the tried and true. The key term here is “disrupt.” According to Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School, a market disruption “displaces an existing market, industry, or technology and produces something new and more efficient and worthwhile.”

In short, you gotta tear it down to build anew. There are a number of recent examples of brands blowing up the paradigm to build something new. Home delivery isn’t a new thing —we’ve been getting mail delivered to our houses since the mail trucks had hooves — but for the last 13 years,  Amazon has been honing home delivery so much that we no longer order something on a Monday to receive it on Wednesday and view that as a luxury. How do you improve on a service that is damn near perfect?

Easy (not really). You blow up the very idea. In this case, Amazon disrupted the idea of home delivery by attempting to remove “home” from the very equation.  If this fledgling plan bears fruit, you’ll be able to receive your deliveries in your car. It’s an attempt by Amazon and its partners, GM and Volvo, to appeal to younger, tech-savvy buyers. If the service is successful, it might not only change the game; it’ll burn the game board. And competitors will scramble to catch up.

Of course, it might not work. Many disruptive innovations don’t. But to win the game, sometimes you have to create the game.

Ag-itating the industry

When it comes to feeding the 10 billion people that will bump shoulders on our planet by 2050, a new game is needed. As our soil gets less uniformly suited for crop growth, fresh water becomes more scarce, and biosecurity gets less and less … secure, one could easily argue that ag is the industry that needs disruptive innovations most of all. The future of the planet might quite literally depend on our willingness to blow up the game board.

The good news is that the ag industry is no stranger to disruptive technologies. If you compare today’s farming techniques to those taking place back when “two-day shipping” meant taking a rowboat from one side of a lake to another, you’ll note that the only similarities are a) the presence of dirt and b) the need to dig into it. You might say that ag is nothing but disruptive technology. Where once we used animals, we now use satellite-guided, self-adjusting machines that may or may not require a human operator. A notoriously traditional and meticulously human industry now welcomes robots to prune vines and cultivate the soil. And while it used to take hours of boots-on-the-ground manpower to monitor crop status, animal movement and encroaching pests, innovative farmers are now droning on about the eye in the sky.

So ag has set a strong precedent for big-time tech adaptations, usually in the name of cost-saving and efficiency. But can the industry move the needle even harder in the name of saving the world?

Say yes to the genome

We have a few major things working against us when it comes to future food production. First, while we’re going to see at least a 50 percent increase in mouths to feed from 2005 to 2050 (6.5 billion to 9.7 billion), we’re also predicting an increase of more than 100 percent in the global crop demand. Second, climate change isn’t making this business any easier. And finally (and most concretely), we aren’t growing new farmland anytime soon. So how do we double our production when faced with more difficult conditions and an ever-shrinking game board?

We disrupt the game.

It might be time to put on our big-boy pants and take a hard look at some genes. Conventional plant breeding takes years. Decades, even. And that’s if you can find species with enough variance to make a tangible difference when crossed. And regardless of your stance on GMOs, the fact is that genetic modification takes time, money and manpower on a level that generally only giant corporations can produce. So what if, rather than inserting a foreign gene into an existing crop to make it behave differently (require less water, etc.) we could just fix the crop on its own?

Enter technologies like CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) and TALEN (transcription activator-like effector nuclease). This approach has mostly been used to date for diving into human genomes, but some innovative crop scientists near Minneapolis have decided to disrupt the paradigm and use similar technology to make a healthier soybean. The beans are already out of the ground where they were planted in South Dakota, and the company, Calyxt, is hard at work altering the genes of thousands of other plants. The beauty of the technology is that crop scientists get the same results as from conventional breeding, but much, much faster and without nearly as much trial and error. If you have a crop’s genetics all mapped out, it’s possible to find the quality you don’t like and…shut it off. It’s not too far-fetched to say that soon we could simply edit the need for, say, too much water. BOOM. Drought-resistance.

The beauty of CRISPR and TALEN is that they don’t take billions of dollars and hordes of scientists to use. An innovative crop scientist can order a CRISPR kit for less than $200, and (for the time being), there are no regulations when editing genes this way because it doesn’t use outside plant bacteria. You’re not adding anything to the existing plants. This may change in the future as the controversy over traditional GMOs seeps into this tech, but for now? Someone might be saving the world in their own garage right now.

And if that isn’t disruptive, we don’t know what is.