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Can You Taste The Algorithm In This Arugula?

“We want more control. With more control, you can make a more sustainable, more efficient food system.


The modern farm is indoors (because of unpredictable climate change), hyperlocal (to cut down on transportation costs), and controlled by an app (because everything in the future will be controlled by an app).

On this week’s episode of our podcast What’s The Point, Allison Kopf, co-founder of Agrilyst, discusses how farms big and small are using data to control sunlight, nutrients, air circulation and more. More data leads to more efficiency, which can lead to lower costs and less food waste. But the move toward app-driven precision may change what it means to farm. Is ruthless efficiency compatible with the slow-food aesthetic? Does something count as local if it didn’t come from the local soil, but was instead grown inside a greenhouse that happens to be near where you’re eating it?

To listen, stream or download the full episode above. Video and a partial transcript are below.

Also this week, FiveThirtyEight’s Anna Maria Barry-Jester presents a Significant Digit on the dipping stock price of “fast-casual” dining, and what it says about modern food consumption.

The algorithm in your arugula

Slow food and big data

Allison Kopf: From a data perspective, our job is to make each and every individual farm more efficient and more sustainable so that the whole global industry becomes more sustainable and more efficient overall.

Jody Avirgan: But, let me tell you where this kind of makes me a little uncomfortable. There’s the whole slow-food, farm-to-table movement, which I feel like you’re part of, to some extent. It feels like your values are aligned with that.

But then any time you talk about ruthless efficiency and farming, I get a little nervous.

Kopf: What we’re trying to do is help farmers operate in the most cost-effective, most efficient way to them. It’s not sort of mechanizing the system or ruthless efficiency. It’s really more of eliminating those tradeoffs so that you get the most you can get out of the farm while spending the least amount of money.

Avirgan: But how do you see your work fitting into the kind of push towards slow food and organic and that whole kind of values-driven food economy?

Kopf: We see a lot of challenges in this industry globally. There’s a need for more efficient food production. We have to increase food production 70 percent by 2050 to meet our growing global demand, and we have to do that in the face of climate change and with limited resources.

And, so, our vision is that the world is going to move toward more weather-independent food systems.

Avirgan: What does weather-independent mean? Indoors?

Kopf: Indoors. We think that the industry’s going to move hugely towards indoor farming. It’s not going to replace outdoor farming, but it’s going to be a part of the solution towards how we get to those efficiency and sustainability goals.

So, indoor farms have the ability, unlike massive outdoor farms, to provide local food. They have the opportunity to provide more sustainable, healthier, fresher produce that lasts longer because it has a larger shelf life, and that is exciting to us.

Climate change and the move indoors

Avirgan: You mentioned climate change. How much of a factor is that in your work that you’re doing, and how much does data-driven farming help?

Kopf: We saw it immediately with the California drought. California farmers lost about a million acres in production area because of the drought — that’s a big number in one year alone.

Avirgan: So, it’s basically that climate change is making things more unpredictable and, in order to have more control, you just move indoors?

Kopf: If you think about it, the reason that crop insurance exists is because a lot of times the weather is unpredictable, and so you can have all of your investment and all of your work going into a farm, and one year maybe there’s a drought, or maybe one year there’s rain, and you lose your entire crop.

So, the food system, and the dependency of the food system, becomes unreliable, whereas, in indoor farming, the whole benefit is that you’re controlling everything that you’re producing. In essence, set your volumes that are coming out of a facility at any given time.

If you’re a fan of What’s The Point, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. And be sure to check out our sports show Hot Takedown as well. Have something to say about this episode, or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email, on Twitter, or in the comments.

What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.