Agriculture is at a crossroads. On one hand, it must adapt quickly to feed a growing global population with limited resources and an ongoing climate crisis. But agricultural innovation has slowed, and consumer trust in agricultural science is dwindling, shedding light on the industry’s need for rejuvenation.
RIV Capital portfolio company and plant traits innovator ZeaKal hosted a webinar with RIV Capital’s Mary Dimou to discuss what traditional agriculture can learn from the rapid buildout of the legal cannabis industry. The webinar, called The Root of It, touched on areas where the two sectors differ, including the pace of technology adoption, consumer marketing, and talent acquisition.
While a recording of The Root of It is available on YouTube, the lessons ag can learn from cannabis include:
Today, agriculture is more insular, with talent largely coming from similar backgrounds. This has arguably led to slower innovation adoption since cross-functionality is less common. Cannabis, by necessity, had to draw on the expertise of complementary industries, including the pharmaceutical, agriculture, and consumer packaged goods industries. Individuals from these industries bring with them best practices that can now be adapted and implemented to cannabis.
“We understood that we needed experts from different areas in order to execute properly,” said Dimou. “Due to the amount of capital we had available in the sector, we were focused on attracting every experienced professional we could. There will likely be large issues for agriculture that would be more effectively tackled from a common front.”
“From a marketing perspective, ag likes to speak to ag,” said Dimou.
This scientist-to-scientist parlance does not resonate with consumers, though. Agriculture struggles in helping consumers understand the science and processes that lead to an end product. This lack of education — something Chen’s team recognizes and aims to address — can cause fear and distrust.
On the other hand, cannabis, being tightly regulated and limited in its marketing, is focusing on education as one of its primary outreach efforts. After years of prohibition, building consumer trust in legal cannabis as safe is paramount to creating a strong market and retaining loyal customers. Agriculture can take notes on how to take ownership of the message, dilute fear, and build trust. These messages are sure to be out in full force as major markets around the world continue to evaluate their positions on cannabis, and companies go all-out in their efforts to promote responsible and favourable public opinion towards the industry.
As much as agriculture might be able to learn from its upstart cannabis compadre, collaboration between the two sectors is likely to be key as they continue to progress together. Years of tried-and-tested agriculture science is available to cannabis as it looks for more cost-effective, energy-efficient, and high-yielding growing methods. This includes best practices in outdoor growing, a relatively new practice for the cannabis companies that largely gravitated towards indoor grows and greenhouses in their early days. It also includes the building out of a large-scale, multi-generational seed program that makes genetic information available across the entire industry.
On the business side, agriculture companies routinely partner with smaller companies to test innovations. While early cannabis companies focused on vertical integration, agriculture leaders will tell them that they don’t have to do it alone. Cannabis companies should be sure to implement research and development partnerships with innovators in both their own sector as well as plant sciences to ensure the best possible outcomes for their crops, and their consumers.
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