Food has become the new religion. While denominations like paleo and vegan and organic debate which is the right way, Robert Saik, author of Food 5.0, How We Feed the Future, believes that we’re ignoring a truth that affects all of us–that in order to support a population of nearly 10 billion people by 2050, agriculture must become infinitely sustainable.
In order to feed the world, we have to grow 10,000 years’ worth of food in the next 30 years, which means farmers worldwide must increase their food production by 60 to 70%.
Robert has 40 years of experience as a professional agrologist. He’s an international consultant who has worked with everyone from Nigeria’s minister of agriculture to Bill Gates, the billionaire philanthropist.
Robert has been hailed as an agriculture futurist with unparalleled insight into where the industry is headed. He is the CEO of DOT Farm Solutions, which supports farmers adopting autonomous robotics in broad acre agriculture. He’s also the founder of AG Viser Pro, a platform that Uber-izes knowledge and wisdom, enabling farmers to instantaneously connect with agriculture experts worldwide.
Robert Saik: I think the pivotal moment of my life really came in the Middle East. I was working in the sulfur industry. Canada produces a lot of elemental sulfur from the petroleum industry that is then turned into fertilizer. We had developed a process that was being investigated by some people in United Arab Emirates. I was working in the United Arab Emirates.
One of the strangest things that I’ve ever encountered in my life was in a field of irrigated tomatoes. We were working with drip irrigation and using sulfur fertilizer to ameliorate the soil, in other words, to cause water to move into the soil in a good fashion. Our fertilizer would help to do that very nicely, it flocculates the soil, which is to loosen up soil–to make soil so that it can hold water. There was a row of irrigated trees there also.
On the other side of the road, there’s a dirt road and in the dirt road, there were stakes down the middle of the dirt road with a rope separating the dirt road in half. I asked what the rope was for and one of the workers told me, “Well, that’s where we line up the trucks, so we divide the trucks up on either side of the road.” And I said, “Well, for what?”
They said, “That’s where we dump the tomatoes.” I went, “We’re growing the tomatoes here, what do you mean dump the tomatoes?”
On the other side of the road in a big hollowed out area in the desert, there were these hundreds of thousands of pounds of tomatoes and I said, “I don’t understand, why are they there?” He said, “We get paid to grow tomatoes. We don’t get paid to sell them.”
That was one of the strangest moments of my life. At that point in time, I realized that a lot of the world didn’t make sense. These guys were getting paid to grow tomatoes, I was flown there to help them grow nice tomatoes, but they didn’t sell them, and ultimately, somebody else was paid to import tomatoes into the country.
It was the most bizarre thing I’d ever seen. At that time, I had four young children. My family is in Alberta, Canada and I thought, “I don’t know what I’m doing here. I don’t know why I’m doing this.”
At that moment, I made a decision to come back and start building my own companies that would reshape how we worked with farmers and how we can provide support and leadership to agriculture.
From my perspective, that moment in the desert where I’m growing tomatoes and on the other side of the road, they’re dumping tomatoes in the desert–which is very strange story and you can’t make that stuff up–that was my pivotal moment that really led me on a journey to provide clarity and start to provide leadership in the agricultural sector.
The History of Agriculture
Charlie Hoehn: You’ve written another book before this. How is this book, Food 5.0, different? What is the update that you have for readers?
Robert Saik: In the first book–The Agriculture Manifesto: 10 Key Drivers that will Shape Agriculture in the Next Decade, which I wrote in 2013 or 2014–that book was really about silos of technology that were going to hit agriculture and it was written largely for the farming community.
Food 5.0, How We Feed the Future is different in a few ways. Number one, it was written for an urban audience, more so than a farming audience. My mental image of who I wrote the book for was a 33-year-old mom in a city with some kids who is working and raising her kids. So, the book, Food 5.0, How We Feed the Future was written for an urban audience and it covers the five iterations of agriculture.
I take you through a journey from the era of muscle and the first four iterations in the first part of the book. The second part of the book is really about convergence, whereas in the first book, I talked about technologies as an isolation.
We live in a time now where all the technologies are smashing together–they are converging on the farm to reshape the farm in ways that urban people just simply do not understand. It is happening at a breakneck pace and farms are far more sophisticated, far more advanced than people realize.
Deception of Marketing
Charlie Hoehn: So, let’s pretend I am an urban listener–why should I really care about Food 5.0? What are the stakes for me?
Robert Saik: The first thing you should realize is that by reading the book 5.0, you’re going to realize and learn a lot about food production and a lot about marketing. For example, most of the time, when you see the Non-GMO butterfly sticker on a food label, that’s a lie. It’s lying to you. The reason I say that is because, when you see a non-GMO butterfly logo on pasta, there is no genetically engineered pasta. When you see a non-GMO sticker on maple syrup or you see a non-GMO sticker on spinach or you see a non-GMO sticker on avocado oil, all of that is deception.
Because there is not genetically engineered avocado oil. Those stickers are pulling dollars out of your pocket based on fear and false marketing.
The other example is organic food. You think you’re buying organic food because it has no pesticides. Well, that’s ridiculous. Of course, there are pesticides used in organic production–they just happen to be organic pesticides. Again, this is something that people don’t seem to realize.
The book talks about food production in various different kinds of regimes or systems. The first thing that I’m trying to do in the book is I’m trying to reduce your fear when you’re shopping in the grocery. You don’t need to be fearful of food.
The fear comes from a lack of understanding about how food is grown and the integration of science in agriculture.
Secondly, I’m trying to educate consumers how much deception there is on food shelves.
Charlie Hoehn: It’s staggering how much they can manipulate reality to the benefit of the company.
Robert Saik: Labels are interesting. I mean, people who have celiac disease are genuinely sensitive to gluten–fair enough, there is an example of a label that does some good. However, it’s taken to the absurd at times when you see gluten free lettuce or gluten free rice.
So, at times, labels are important because they protect health, but when they start to spin the story into something untrue or false it creates unnecessary fear.
How many of the listeners right now are fearful of GMO’s? They don’t know what it is, they don’t understand the science, they think that because there’s a non-GMO sticker on this bottle of avocado oil, somehow, that’s better than a GMO avocado. There is no GMO avocado and even if there was, you shouldn’t be afraid of it. That is one part of the book.
The Eras of Agriculture
Charlie Hoehn: What are some of the key points you want listeners to take away from this first part of the book?
Robert Saik: The first part of the book is a journey through the era of muscle. Call it 10,000–12,000 years, since we started to have agriculture by moving from hunter gatherer to agriculture, where we raised crops and livestock–that was initially the era of muscle. Whether it was man or oxen or horse, that was an era that we lived in for millennia. It was a very brutal and harsh world that really didn’t start to see change until the 1800s when mechanization came in.
There’s a lot of people out there who talk about and preach that we should be one with the land and that kind of stuff. That’s fine, but if you’ve ever tried to harvest half an acre of potatoes by hand, you soon realize the era of mechanization beats the crap out of harvesting something by hand. And then when you move that into discussion about farms of consequence, farms that produce the bulk of our food, it causes you to think.
So, the era of muscle is a romanticized era that really can’t feed the world. If you’re farming and your farm is a muscle farm, then you’re really a subsistence farmer. That’s not where we want people and it’s not how we feed people. It’s now how we feed the future.
Charlie Hoehn: What do you want people to know about convergence?
Robert Saik: Well, again, we started in the era of muscle, we moved to the era of machines, then the era of chemistry, which is really the year of Haber Bosch or the fertilizer process and the chemistry that we used, starting in the mid-50s. But the earliest chemistry actually was organic chemistry–organic pesticides such as pyrethrin from chrysanthemums, which they still use today as an insecticide, or elemental sulfur, or Bordeaux mixture, which is sulfur with slaked lime that they use in organic production.
The fourth iteration is the era of biotechnology, the era of genetic engineering, which actually is the era of less chemistry used to grow crops.
Charlie Hoehn: Because there is less chemistry to produce food? That’s surprising.
Robert Saik: Well, again, people think that genetic engineering is synonymous with more chemical use, but it’s exactly the opposite. The greatest example I could give to you is the reduction of insecticide use because we have a genetically engineered BT corn, cotton, or soybeans. We don’t use indiscriminate spraying of insecticides anymore because genetic engineering allows the plant to build up its insect resistance inside the plant. We don’t have to use indiscriminate pesticides.
Glyphosate is all over in the news right now. However, when you compare weed control in the 70s, 60s, or even the early 80s, we put pounds on the ground of active ingredient to control weeds. Today, thanks to glyphosate, we’re using a pop can over a football field. That is a story that most people don’t understand.
When you talk about GMO or genetic engineering, it doesn’t result in more active ingredients per acre to grow a crop. It results in much less active ingredient per acre. A quick example is cotton. At one time it took up to 24 pounds of active ingredient per acre to grow a cotton crop–to fight all the bull worms and all the pests associated with cotton. We are down to four pounds of active ingredient per acre. That’s all because of genetic engineering. Again, people don’t know these things.
The Science of Healthy Soil
Charlie Hoehn: Why don’t we know these things?
Robert Saik: Well, we have social media that is prevalent and there are lots and lots of people out there fearmongering about food. If you scrape away and scrape away and scrape away a lot of it, it is backed by people who want to charge more for food. They’re telling and selling a story to the consumer. If you take Dannon, for example, they talk about non-GMO dairy products.
Every cow has to de-nature the corn it eats in its four stomachs–it’s rumen system. How does corn, whether it is GMO or non-GMO, affect the yogurt? It doesn’t. It’s a label. If you are going to charge extra to a mom who is going to pay extra money for this non-GMO yogurt, you better create a fear story around it. That is what is being done in the marketplace.
The book really has two central themes to it. One is that regardless of your food religion–whether you are a vegan, paleo, organic, regenerative, agro-ecological, conventional, GMO or non-GMO–at the end of the day, in the next 30 years we have to produce 10,000 years’ worth of food. Every area on the planet has got to increase food production 60 to 70%. As long as we have people on the planet, we have to ensure that agriculture is infinitely sustainable.
When you consider the sustainability issues around agriculture, they come down to soil, water use efficiency, greenhouse gas balance, animal welfare, and everybody misses the most important one, which is farm viability. Without farmer viability, you do not have sustainability. The book talks about what the factors are in terms of the evolution of agriculture that lead towards infinite sustainability.
Set your religion aside and let us have a discussion around the science of soil and health, and what would make soils healthy. Reduction and tillage would make soils healthy. As an organic producer, how do you keep weeds out of your soil? Well, you have to use a lot of tillage in most organic situations. What does that do to soil and what does that do to long-term sustainability? How does that compare to a pop can over a football field?
In terms of greenhouse gas balance and reduction of tillage, improving soil health, how do all of those things stack up? Let us have a conversation around the science and not the rhetoric.
Farms of Consequence
Charlie Hoehn: What would you say is the big idea in part two?
Robert Saik: What people don’t realize is that at farm levels, especially farmers of consequence–what I mean by that is farms that produce 80% plus of our staple food–the statistic bantered around a lot is that 2% of the 370 million people in Canada and in the United States are farmers. That’s totally incorrect. They may be hobby farmers, but farmers of consequence actually are 0.2%. This morning as I tape this with you, I am sitting in an office in Northern Saskatchewan on a 14,000-acre grain farm.
This is a farm of consequence–they make their living from farming. They produce a tremendous amount of food. The number one constraint at farm level is qualified farm labor. We cannot find enough machinery operators to operate the equipment.
Yesterday, I was with the Rural Bank of Canada and we were talking about an estimation that in the next ten years, we’re going to be short 123,000 workers in the agricultural sector. It will cost our country Canada 11 billion dollars in lost GDP, because we don’t have qualified workers.
So, one of the areas in the second part of the book that I want to talk to the readers about is convergence. I am CEO of a robotics company called DOT. DOT is autonomous robotic farming for broad acre agriculture. DOT is named after the owner’s mother, Dorothy, who is a multi-tasker. We’re bringing DOT into the marketplace. It is a good example of convergence in that you cannot have DOT working on a farm unless you have a convergence of technology.
You need to have great cellular connectivity. You have to have internet connectivity. You have to have GPS and GIS. GPS is the guidance that you use in your car and GIS is geographic information systems. You have immense computing power. You have eyes on the robot, which are a folder metric of cameras. You have radar and LiDAR. Then you have what we are moving towards right now, which is machine learning, which is part of artificial intelligence.
All those things are mashed together in one technology called DOT, for example. So, that’s an example of where I want to take the readers of the book, is to understand the degree of sophistication at the farm level today. It is not uncommon for farmers to have four or five computer monitors in the cabs of their tractors or combines.
Providing Leadership to Farmers
Charlie Hoehn: What is your proudest accomplishment?
Robert Saik: Well, starting in 1997 I began building an organization called Argi-Trend and Agri Data, which was a data platform. We built that organization to provide leadership to farmers through agri-coaches. These agri-coaches were independent consultants. I provided the framework, built the leadership team, and the data structure to provide leadership to farmers through agri-coaches. We have hundreds of agri-coaches through North America, working with thousands of farmers on millions of acres.
We were looking to expand that and locked eyes with Trimble, the Silicon Valley company, and we sold Agri-Trend to Trimble. Our data system is now global in 15 languages, which gives me an immense amount of pride. The legacy of Agri-Trend was all of these independent coaching businesses all over North America that continue to provide leadership to farmers.
Since then, in addition to being CEO of Dot, I launched a new company last week called AGvisorPro. AGvisorPro is really built on the legacy of Agri-Trend. It is the uberization of knowledge and wisdom. In other words, we provide instantaneous connectivity between farmers and experts in real time. So, the proudest thing I’ve done in my career is to build an organization that’s really influenced millions of acres of farmland and changed the mindset of a whole lot of people, foundationally on agriculture, dealing with agronomy, dealing with position agriculture, dealing with data. That was pretty cool and now I am onto the next iteration.
Charlie Hoehn: What is the best way for listeners to either follow you or potentially connect with you if they want to learn more or dive into this industry?
Robert Saik: I think the simplest way is just to go to my personal website, which is robertsaik.com and on Twitter is @Robert Saik. I am pretty active on both of those platforms. The website will give you a deep dive into my biography, the work that we’ve done and the number of enterprises I am involved in. I am partners in a 5,300-acre farm in Uganda. So, I have a pretty good idea what is going on in Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, those parts of the world and as well as Ukraine, Russia, Brazil, Argentina and Australia.
Reach Out to a Farmer
Charlie Hoehn: What is one thing or idea that our listeners can take from your book and have a positive impact on their life this week?
Robert Saik: I think that urban people need to reach out to a farmer. I am not disparaging against small acreage or farmers that are on the edge of cities, but I would encourage our listeners to reach out to a farmer of consequence. Somebody who is like this operation where I am today, the 14,000 acres–three generations raising four children in rural Saskatchewan and making a living here.
I see so much pain in the eyes of farmers today because they work so hard, the risks are so great at farm level, it is noble work. Yet the media is vilifying this family farm because somehow, they are trying to what–poison the world? It’s preposterous. The pain I see in the eyes of farmers today, because we are always proud in the work we do, but if you are a large farming operation, people label you as some kind of an industrial corporate farm, when you are really a family, running a corporation, that happens to be farming.
I would encourage the listeners to reach out to a farm. Go to Twitter and search #farmer and talk to somebody who is farming. Learn more about agriculture production and where your food comes from. That’s really why I wrote the book. I hope that people pick up Food 5.0, How we Feed the Future and really learn how we will feed this future.