This Week in Business (5/23): Internet plants and angry babies


images via free use

Agriculture meets the internet and toddlers shake their heads in disdain at US trade policy amidst baby formula shortage

Agriculture meets the internet

With the meteoric rise of the technology and consumer goods industries, farming is an industry that is oft-overlooked despite it’s crucial role in feeding the planet. However, the business of agriculture came into the limelight this past week among record high earnings within the burgeoning “agri-tech” industry. 

The development of “precision agriculture,” platforms that integrate sensors and software to help farmers monitor the health of their crops, has evolved into a $7.8 billion market as of 2021. Leading the charge is startup InnerPlant, based right out of our backyard in San Francisco. InnerPlant develops biosensors that attach to the roots of plants and physically change the color of the plant through molecular DNA recoding. The biosensors cause the plant to change color to express if it needs water, is infected with pests, or is withering in the heat. Farmers can then use a mobile application to monitor their crops in real time and respond to their needs.

The large-scale impact of this high-tech monitoring platform and the overarching goal of the precision agriculture industry is increased crop yields. Real-time, easy-to-access feedback on crop conditions enables farmers to tend to crops before they die, thereby increasing yield and widening profit margins in a conventionally low-profit business.

Precision agriculture and agri-tech in general is part of the same large-scale trend modern-day historians have been observing over the past few decades: the internet is eating the world.

Toddlers shake their heads in disdain at US trade policy amidst baby formula shortage

Widespread panic has erupted among parents across the country as they face empty shelves rather than baby formula at grocery stores. As per a New York Times report, 40% of standard baby formula inventory is out of stock in the United States, leaving parents who rely on baby formula to feed their children to resort to desperate measures such as homemade formula and driving across to state lines to find stock. 

Parents were already stockpiling formula at the outset of the pandemic, but the fiasco really started in February when the FDA recalled formula produced by leading producer Abbott following reported deaths and bacterial illnesses caused by contamination in their formula factory.

When producers such as Abbot attempted to restock via international suppliers, they were met with mile-high policy roadblocks. Due to extremely stringent FDA regulations, the list of approved ingredients for baby powder contains essentially only US-produced ingredients. In the rare case that a foreign ingredient is permitted in baby powder, foreign suppliers are faced with import taxes that eat up any profit-incentive for them to export baby-powder ingredients to the United States.

Zooming out, this baby formula crisis highlights the drawbacks of recent federal policy that is attempting to bolster domestic manufacturing. Luckily, the administration has taken notice: Biden announced earlier this week in a press conference that the FDA would work to lower the barriers to import for companies that produce the essential ingredients for baby formula and other everyday necessities.