Photograph courtesy Randy Komisar
Photograph courtesy Randy Komisar

Are We Ready for an Ag Tech Revolution?

The technology has been ready for decades, but the time is finally ripe for the world to take a new approach to agriculture, says entrepreneur Randy Komisar.

Komisar is a founding director of TiVo, a partner at venture capitalist firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and a lead investor in Nest—a little wireless thermostat control company that took off big just before Google bought it in 2014.

Komisar is known for knowing what’s coming next, and now he thinks agricultural technology is ready to bloom. I caught up with him recently and asked him, why now?

“My attraction to food and ag tech is the timely application of technologies that have penetrated many other parts of our lives,” he tells me. For example, Nest lets people easily adjust their thermostats, even when they’re away from home. The concept is nascent on the farm. “It’s a real indication of the gap in farming and food today, in terms of transparency … having environments be responsive to their [peoples’] needs.”

In his vision, the industry will revolutionize everything you think you know about food production: Big ag will make room for smaller companies with more personal connections to customers, costs will go down as more makers rely on local supply networks, and giving customers all the information they want will be the norm.

In our current agricultural system, a few big companies sit at the top of the food chain, providing nearly all of the industry’s technologies and information from the top down. Because of the level of control exerted by top companies, information becomes increasingly limited as it trickles towards the grassroots users.

“The losers in all of this are the consumers and the farmers,” says Komisar. The farmers in the system become completely dependent on their vendors for information about best practices and best products for their businesses.

Komisar envisions the rise of new companies that tear the old systems down to make way for a better—and more honest—future of food.

And hey—we’re on the same page here, Komisar. With the Open Agriculture Initiative taking root, we hope to provide some of the tools to make this happen.

“What we really need in this space is a business model that embraces openness as a core tenant, and what I mean by that is, we need a business model as robust as Google’s business model.” he says. Google has an interest in keeping its data open, relying on “distributing, searching, and making sense of that data.”

And as for his thoughts on crop patents? “The reality is that no one can own this stuff, it changes immediately when you plant it,” he says.

(A lot of that change is driven by climate conditions or the plant’s phenome, and my own vision is to one day share that, too.)

Komisar hopes to support agriculture models that will empower farmers to take back control from vendors and from the supply chain, and that will incentivize farmers to openly share data.

For example, if an independent company is able to provide valuable big data analyses that will help farmers produce food more efficiently or more sustainably, then by participating and sharing their own data, individual farmers could benefit the database, and in turn, their businesses, with the information. While the data would be open, proprietary analyses could also be sold to larger corporations with an interest in the field.

Openness in the production process will allow consumers experience the farm, get to know the people producing their food, and develop a loyalty to quality products that they know are grown safely and sustainably, he says.

Komisar also hopes this will help improve the general public’s understanding of the qualities they think they value in food, and the qualities they should actually value.

“Frankly, whether a product is organic doesn’t matter if I can’t tell you that it’s pesticide free, as nutritious as it should be, or as fresh as it should be,” says Komisar. Right now, brands are being built that are not delivering fully on their promise and no one is able to validate or test them.

If we can instead create the ability to track a product’s inputs and outputs all the way from farm to table, however, then we can ensure that the products we’re getting are wholesome and healthy, he says.

Komisar sees agriculture following the trend of corporate America, which is learning that bigger doesn’t always mean better. “For the longest time we’ve been the slaves to scale, believing that if you don’t get big, you’re not important.” Food and beverage industries, though, are proving that there is still room for craft products to thrive—think microdistilleries. Companies don’t necessarily need to keep growing in order to be sustainable, provide jobs, and be productive in their communities.

For the future of food, Komisar anticipates a wider gap forming between global and artisanal markets. He sees suppliers like Amazon serving the need for storable, prepackaged goods, while local, small-plot or even urban farmers will become the main sources of fresh foods and specialty products.

Komisar notes, too, that artisanal doesn’t need to mean more expensive. If companies can work on a local scale, some costs can be lowered and the producer and consumer can share a more intimate relationship. Komisar sees this strategy as a part of a greater solution to making quality, nutritious food more accessible worldwide.

Want to hear more on Randy Komisar’s take on the Future of Food? Komisar is participating in a food and technology conference called reThink Food in Napa Valley, California, November 6-8. The conference is sponsored by the Culinary Institute of America and MIT’s Media Lab, and National Geographic is a media sponsor.

Caleb Harper is a 2015 National Geographic Emerging Explorer and a Research Scientist at MIT’s Media Lab, working to reinvent how we grow healthy food in cities. Follow him on Twitter/Instagram @calebgrowsfood.