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Ag-tech could change how the world eats

AP Wire • Jul 22, 2015 at 11:05 AM

Investors and entrepreneurs behind some of the world's newest industries have started to put their money and tech talents into farming -- the world's oldest industry -- with an audacious agenda: to make sure there is enough food for the 10 billion people expected to inhabit the planet by 2100, do it without destroying the world and make a pretty penny along the way. 

Silicon Valley is pushing its way into every stage of the food-growing process, from tech tycoons buying up farmland to startups selling robots that work the fields to hackathons dedicated to building the next farming app.

"The food sector is wasteful and inefficient," said Ali Partovi, a Bay Area investor with large stakes in sustainable agriculture startups. "Silicon Valley has a hubris that says, 'That's stupid. Let's change it.'?"

The booming activity around the so-called "ag-tech" sector has led experts to predict that its growth, in terms of the number of new startups and venture capital investments, will in another five or so years outpace today's hottest technologies. In the third quarter this year, venture capitalists and private equity firms invested $269 million into 41 deals in agriculture and food startups, the highest dollar amount ever in that sector and double the amount invested during the third quarter last year, according to data from the Cleantech Group.

Since 2009, investments into this sector have grown an average 63 percent every year. "It's going to be bigger than cloud software, it's going to be bigger than Big Data, because everybody eats," said Paul Matteucci, a partner with U.S. Venture Partners and founder of Feeding 10 Billion, a nonprofit center to help ag-tech entrepreneurs."And it's going to be completely entrepreneur led."

Dozens of companies are creating technology to make farmland more productive and farming more efficient, using robots to trim lettuce or software to calculate grass production for cattle grazing. Others are tapping technology to find substitutes for meat, cheese and eggs, so less land is used to raise livestock, fewer greenhouse gas-spewing trucks are used to transport them, and fewer animals are subject to inhumane slaughter.

VCs have propped up startups such as Hampton Creek, which sells mayonnaise and cookies that use plant products instead of eggs, and Impossible Foods, a Redwood City company making hamburgers and cheese without meat or dairy. And Silicon Valley isn't just making technology for farms. Some of its highest-profile investors are buying farmland to have a hand in how farmers work their fields and influence the type of food that's available for future generations.

San Francisco-based Farmland LP, which buys farms and converts them into organic pasture that crop farmers and cattle and sheep ranchers share, has attracted some of the valley's wealthiest investors, including Partovi, early PayPal investor and entrepreneur Scott Banister and former Facebook and Zynga executive Owen Van Natta.

But the draw is more than a happy vision of free-roaming cows _ many investors see farmland as a safe investment to balance volatile tech investments.

Farmers, for the most part, have welcomed Silicon Valley techies into their world of planting seasons and water woes. From Salinas to Fresno to Tracy, California farmers are increasingly tech-minded, running their fields from iPads and tracking soil moisture and nitrogen levels with cloud software programs, and they are hungry for more tech solutions that will bolster their land's productivity and their bank balance.

"There is a kind of renaissance in technology in agriculture right now," said Ryan Jacobsen, a farmer and executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. "The technology is becoming more mainstream because more and more people believe that it will help them produce more. These technologies actually do make a difference on your bottom line. It's an exciting time to be a farmer right now."

In many ways, agriculture is an industry ripe for a Silicon Valley shake-up _ farms were historically on the forefront of manufacturing innovation, and farmers have long embraced new technology.

But farmers and tech startups, living in separate worlds with very different financial resources and cultures, have only recently seen each other as an asset because of a number of economic, tech and social factors that collided in the last few years.

During the recession, California agriculture remained one of the only bright spots in the state's floundering economy.

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