A farmer in India who wants to feed his family rather than the bugs eating his beans. A scientist whose grant applications keep getting rejected. A young professional in Seattle looking for meaning in life. Many more who farm. Still more who eat. Grow Further brings them all together.
There are approximately 800 million people malnourished today, many of them children. Continuously improving agriculture to keep up with a growing population, constantly evolving pests and diseases, and a changing climate is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity. Yet too often the innovations society needs are overlooked by bureaucracy.
Agricultural innovation is essential to food security, and a large body of economic research suggests that it has one of the highest rates of return to society of any public investment or development strategy. It’s one of the most effective ways to fight poverty, improve nutrition, help adapt to a changing environment, and in some countries even maintain national security. Compared to Big Science like particle accelerators it’s dirt cheap. Most of the time it doesn’t involve GMOs, or anything else particularly controversial for that matter. Major foundations have recognized this since the 1950s and continue to make agricultural innovation one of their top two or three international priorities.
Yet individual donors, who in the United States last year made $4.80 in charitable donations for every dollar of foundation grants, are almost completely disengaged from agricultural innovation. Nonprofit organizations, such as private universities and hospitals, play a large role in science generally but almost none in agricultural innovation. Government, the private sector, and the nonprofit sector all have strengths and weaknesses, and effectively engaging all of them will create a stronger innovation ecosystem to support the future of food production.
A Systemic Problem
An open platform for middle-class engagement is a new concept in the international agricultural research space.
Imagine, for a moment, that you and your business partner have a cool idea for a new search engine. You walk into a state-owned bank looking for a loan to finance it. The banker asks, “What’s your collateral, this silly logo where every letter is a different color?”
In the American private sector, this kind of story doesn’t happen because we have a diverse financing ecosystem. An innovative company can work its way up from family and friends, to individual angel investors, to venture capital funds, to listing on a stock exchange. At each stage, there are investors willing to take risks on innovations that might really pay off. Similarly, most types of innovations that are in the public interest but not clearly associated with a financial return are financed from diverse sources. For example, educational reform experiments are funded and conducted not only by government but also by private universities, independent think tanks, foundations, and numerous small and grassroots organizations.
In areas of agricultural research that don’t offer a financial return, particularly in developing countries, there is no diverse innovation financing ecosystem.
It’s more akin to the founders of Google trying their luck at a state-owned bank. Liu Jianguo, an ordinary farmer we met in China’s Sichuan Province, thinks that he can control a plant disease by changing the timing of irrigation. There’s nothing to sell, so no private company is likely to be interested in studying this. Unless a credentialed scientist tests it, it’s hard to refine it and few others are likely to learn about it or take him seriously. And a scientist won’t do the study unless they can get a grant to pay for it. There are a handful of government agencies and major foundations that might make such a grant, and if none of them happen to be interested, or if it’s too small for them to evaluate in a process that relies exclusively on paid staff, the study doesn’t happen. There are essentially no grassroots organizations, or even “grasstops” organizations like community foundations, to turn to. Even private universities have, with very small exceptions, ignored the sector.
From Farmer Liu’s perspective, the system is hopelessly bureaucratic. At Grow Further, we think this is a problem. A big problem when it comes to something as important as agriculture or the innovation that underlies the future of food supplies.
Our long-term plan is to form a network of chapters or imitators so that farmers and scientists have lots of choices when it comes to testing small or unconventional ideas and so that middle-class Americans have a meaningful way to get involved. If you care about GMO policy, there are lots of organizations out there lobbying on each side. If you want to get involved with the majority of agricultural innovations that have nothing to do with GMOs, there’s almost nothing.