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Robots and Better Business Models: How the World’s Growing Population Can Learn to Feed Itself

Fortune Global Sustainability Forum 2019Fortune Global Sustainability Forum 2019
Klaus Kunz, Head of Crop Science and Sustainability and Business Stewardship for Bayer speaks at the Fortune Global Sustainability Forum on in Yunnan, China.Stefen Chow/Fortune

With a growing population and fast-disappearing natural resources, how can the world feed itself?

Experts speaking at the Fortune Global Sustainability Forum in Yunnan, China on Thursday offered their ideas for ensuring a more sustainable and accessible future of food, and placed their bets on the following:

Technology

From farming robots to big data-driven decision making tools, many in attendance believed technology is the answer for more efficient and sustainable agriculture. Tony Fadell, who invented the iPod, iPhone, and the Nest smart thermostat and is now investing in agricultural start-ups, believes the same democratizing technology that has transformed other industries could be just as revolutionary for smallholder farmers. It can increase the precision of their agriculture yields and improve their ability to compete against big agricultural companies, which he argues are less sustainable for the system. Mei Zhang, founder of sustainable travel company WildChina, noted that farmers in Yunnan, China are using live-streaming technology to demonstrate the environmentally-friendly ways their crops are grown and then sell them on online marketplaces like Taobao.

Better Economics

Technology is great, but many in the audience noted the farmers who could most benefit from innovation can’t afford it. “There will be no sustainable agriculture without farmers,” said Klaus Kunz, the head of crop science and sustainability and business stewardship at Bayer, who noted the majority of farmers are struggling to stay in business. “We must find a model that is attractive to farmers,” he said, adding that may mean inverting the model for companies like Bayer—which sells pesticides to farmers—from selling inputs to selling outcomes.

Cameron Clayton, general manager for IBM’s Watson and weather businesses said “it’s not super sexy or cool,” but the thing that will really impact the sustainability of agriculture is helping farmers secure loans, which many of them can’t currently do.

Consumer Change

People need to waste less food and choose more sustainable options. How do you make that happen?

David Rosenberg, co-founder and CEO of vertical farming startup AeroFarms, says it’s important to educate the consumer about the how and why behind more sustainable food options. His company, for example, grows its crops using no sun or soil, but he finds consumers are very open to the products when they understand the reasons for that and the fact that their cultivation involves less water and no pesticides.

Empowering consumers with information is essential, he says. “You have to trust the consumers to make an educated decision.”

Patrick Brown, founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, the maker of plant-based meat says it’s not about coercing consumers into better, more environmentally-friendly eating behaviors, it’s about pleasing them with more sustainable foods.

This story has been corrected to clarify that Bayer does not sell fertilizers.

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—Dow CEO Jim Fitterling has a counter-argument to the plastic backlash
—Former Sinopec chairman says Chinese executives think climate change can wait
—China’s Yangtze river basin—the world’s third-largest economy—is at great risk
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