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Why Investors Are Looking Closely at Agricultural Technology

Nebraska farmer Evan Meyers is the sixth generation of his family to work their land in the northeast part of the state, where he and his father grow corn and soybeans. But their farming practices today look very different from those of their forbearers. And the means by which they are executed have evolved with new technology and injections of capital from the private sector.

In a YouTube video, Meyers demonstrates from the cab of a combine crop sprayer how technology allows him to tend the crops on the family’s 1,800-acre farm more effectively and efficiently.

“Using the GPS technology, we use auto-steer and what we call ‘accu-boom,’ which turns on and off each sprayer boom automatically to minimize our spray overlap, to eliminate trips, to cut down on our fuel usage and personal labor and labor costs,” he explains. “All of these help us do more with less.”

The information revolution-data collection and analytics, robotics, always-connected software platforms and other innovations-has dramatically changed how many industries do business. Long-standing industries like shipping, manufacturing and retail, among others, will never be the same.

While it gets less media attention, add agriculture to the growing list of industries evolving rapidly thanks to the integration of new technologies.

Agriculture technology, or agtech, is shaping up to be a sector ripe for innovation. That promise is attracting the attention of investors, who are increasingly tuned in to the potential benefits of the agtech revolution, according to a 2016 report published by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and AgFunder, “Lessons from the Frontlines of the Agtech Revolution.

BCG surveyed dozens of executives from leading agribusiness companies and investors from venture capital firms to get a clearer sense of how they’re approaching agtech as an investment opportunity.

They find growing optimism about agtech’s potential from investors, who are putting their money behind a variety of deals, partnerships, equity stakes, technology centers and research and development ventures.

It’s likely that investment in areas such as crop-protection and the seed sector will bring substantial societal benefits. Making farming more efficient through data collection and analysis helps boost crop yields while increasing the efficiency of inputs like seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, allowing farmers to raise more food on less acreage.

That’s not only a benefit for providing an abundant food supply for the United States and the world-it also could have positive environmental effects, since it would mean less land required for agricultural purposes.

“Just like a smart phone helps users learn, communicate and make important decisions, smart technology-known as precision agriculture-helps farmers know and apply critical information about the right investments in fertilizer, seed, pesticide and water needed to produce their crops,” Seth Murray, an expert on the nexus between tech and farming at the Department of Agriculture, writes at the department blog. “Through new technologies, farmers produce more efficiently and see an increase in profits while improving stewardship of ecosystems and local communities.”

The possibilities go well beyond those potential benefits, as ag biotech remains a growing and vital area of research and application. For example, advances in gene editing technology could have positive impacts for health care, as food supplies are “hacked” to make them more nutritious or even therapeutic.

Meanwhile, improvements to automation and robotics (think of crops tended by self-driving vehicles and overseen by drone technology); supply chains and logistics; and agricultural processing are other areas investors are watching closely, the BCS report notes. The more these technologies are refined and deployed, the more cost-effective they’ll become, leading to more widespread use in a virtuous cycle.

Building a more vibrant, productive agricultural sector through tech integration could make rural areas more competitive, creating new opportunities for skilled labor in parts of America’s heartland that have been hard hit by economic change. As Project Invested noted previously, the ag biotech field alone is already credited with creating tens of thousands of high-paying jobs, distributed in states throughout the country.

But these new technologies and others like them require investment and funding-in some combination of private funding and public research and development dollars-to make them happen.

As the BCG study emphasizes: “Even if only a small proportion of these investments produce successful technologies, the resulting wave of innovation could increase farm yields to an extent unmatched since the early days of mechanization.”