Disrupters in Food and Agriculture

Danielle Beurteaux

Old MacDonald Has Some Code 10101

The United Nations Population Fund estimates that the global human population will number 9.6 billion by 2050, which raises a critical question: how will we feed all those people? Efficient food production is essential. Startups are developing technologies that use data to shepherd resources and increase yields in an environmentally sustainable way.

Micro GC

sap_Q316_digital_double_disruptors_images1The UN Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that pests and diseases ruin 20% to 40% of global crop yields. The sick plants are practically sending out an SOS. A team at the Georgia Institute of Technology has created a device equipped with sensors that can “smell” the volatile organic compounds that are emitted by plants under attack and are unique to each disease.

The device—a small, square box designed to be mounted on a stick—incorporates a micro gas chromatograph (micro GC), an instrument for analyzing chemical compounds. It can quickly detect the ailment and send results to a smartphone app. Farmers using a micro GC would be able to easily and cheaply detect disease before it gets a foothold in their crop.

The team is testing the device in peach orchards at the USDA’s Southeastern Fruit and Tree Nut Research Laboratory in Byron, Georgia, and is working on integrating the device with robots that can gather and analyze samples then deliver the results as they travel through fields.


sap_Q316_digital_double_disruptors_images3About 70% of the world’s renewable freshwater resources go to agriculture. But farmers can waste water when they irrigate fields unnecessarily. “Internet of Soil” startup CropX is applying analytics to this problem. The CropX adaptive irrigation system uses sensors to collect data for agricultural water management.

The company uses USDA soil maps and its own patented software to analyze soil types and recommend how many sensors to deploy in a field. The sensors are buried in the soil at strategic locations determined with help from a GPS-enabled smartphone app. Farmers can access water data from the sensors using cloud-based software and determine whether they need to irrigate the area. The sensor will even text updates to indicate soil moisture levels and temperature.

Are You Really Going to Eat That?

Food security is achieved when people have access to plentiful, nutritious, and safe food. But how do we know if food is healthy and free of bacteria? New devices offer quick, inexpensive, and accurate ways to analyze nutrients and detect pathogens—enabling healthier diets and reducing incidence of food-borne illnesses.

Food Spectrometer

sap_Q316_digital_double_disruptors_images7What’s in our food? The MIT Media Lab, design firm IDEO, spectrometer company Ocean Optics, and retailer Target are collaborating on a technology that could answer this question for consumers while they’re shopping. The food spectrometer is a handheld device that analyzes light radiation to identify a food’s chemical and molecular makeup. A complementary “food fingerprint” database that is still being developed will help consumers use the food spectrometer to determine the nutritional value, freshness, caloric value, and even taste cues of specific produce items. The device is being tested at two of Target’s distribution centers.


sap_Q316_digital_double_disruptors_images10According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pathogens in food consumed in the United States in 2014 made 13,246 people sick, sent 712 to the hospital, and killed 21. Yet conventional commercial food testing can be time-consuming and expensive, especially for small producers. Invisible Sentinel’s Veriflow device aims to make the process more efficient, faster, and affordable. Veriflow uses proprietary technology to identify DNA and reveal  whether contaminants, such as E. coli bacteria, are lurking in food. It delivers results in three minutes and doesn’t require a trained scientist to use it.

Digitally Delicious

In the future, food might be prepared differently than it is now. It might look different, too. Commercial food producers are looking at innovations that incorporate technology to craft fresh, efficient, and sometimes mind-blowing meals.


sap_Q316_digital_double_disruptors_images12Will this device be the next microwave? Natural Machines is bringing 3D-printed food to commercial kitchens with Foodini. The unit’s “open capsule model”—the only one on the market right now—enables chefs to fill the US$2,000 printer’s stainless steel capsules with fresh ingredients rather than prepackaged components. Up to five capsules can be used at a time to assemble multi-ingredient dishes such as pizza. Foodini can help chefs complete repetitive prep tasks, like making pasta or cookies, as well as realize intricate custom creations. The company is currently developing and testing a version that can cook what it prints.

Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.

Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.