As one of the world’s largest agriculture and food companies, Minnesota-based Cargill is on a mission to innovate the industry on a historical scale.
By 2025, there will be 8.1 billion people on the planet needing access to safe, quality food that fuels daily life in more sustainable and transparent ways.
Advancements in applying technology to meet these demands are core to delivering on Cargill’s global mission and driving business transformation for this 155-year-old company and its 155,000 employees to serve customers on every corner of the planet.
Leading the technology charge is Cargill’s Chief Information Officer, Justin Kershaw. In 2015, he started to oversee all aspects of information technology across the company’s $115 billion global portfolios of agriculture, food manufacturing, trading, and financial business. Cargill’s technology team includes over 2,000 information technology professionals, technology strategists, and an extended network of external partners, data pros, and up-and-coming entrepreneurial talent working to solve some of the world’s agriculture and food challenges.
AGRICULTURE MEETS INNOVATION
Cargill’s team is implementing a series of tech programs addressing the operational needs Cargill and its customers face today, while projecting what applications are needed in the future as food demand increases and climate challenges continue to grow.
“Given the global scope of our work at Cargill, we can impact the way entire supply chains function around the world,” shared Kershaw. “It’s an opportunity that our team and partners take on every day understanding that what we develop has implications on the quality of life and the environment on a very macro, global level.”
The key to Cargill’s technology transformation is approaching the work from an entrepreneur’s mindset with agile methodologies that propel the tech startups of Silicon Valley. About five years ago, Cargill set out to become a leader in digital technology – an area where the food and agriculture sector had historically lagged – because the company recognized that technology would play an outsized role in advancing the industry both in food production and in sustainability.
Cargill made a bold move in establishing Digital Labs, a place where Cargill’s teams could go for inspiration, engineering, and digital experimenting. The Digital Labs team helped businesses explore the art of the possible. Cargill engaged with Techstars, an accelerator program for startups in Minneapolis, and partnered with agricultural programs at universities from the Midwest to the East Coast, Europe, South America, and Asia.
Digital Labs recently established an internal incubator program called EDGE, where in-house teams can test digital business ideas and win internal funding to scale their startups.
“Coming off of our Techstars accelerator programs and participation in the Twin Cities Startup Weeks, we set up EDGE inside Cargill to spark new solutions for unique customer needs,” added Kershaw. “Our work spans the full value chain from inputs, growing, processing, trading, and consuming to tackle next-generation business challenges and opportunities. Sustainability and climate is a focus.”
THE CUTTING EDGE
Although relatively new, the in-house EDGE program is already bringing new applications online to solve challenges customers have faced for generations.
One EDGE-backed idea that’s gaining traction is the Digital Saathi app for farmers in India. This application improves the livelihoods of small landholder farms by providing access to information and advisory services on weather, crop practices, pest and disease control, and market price data. It connects farmers to third-party service providers in the ag value chain process.
In the food service industry, another internal startup called Hot Take provides a new mobile platform for restaurants to gain real-time feedback from their customers.
Lastly, GrainBridge, LLC is a joint venture with Archer Daniels Midland Company. Through this partnership, Cargill developed a suite of digital solutions, including tools that provide grain marketing decision support, e-commerce, and account management.
Ultimately, the technology makes the farmer’s life easier by eliminating stress and emotion from the grain marketing process. It enables farmers to make more informed, efficient decisions, providing access to real-time data and insights through a straightforward platform.
“Collaborations with other ag companies are the way forward for all of us to prosper,” explained Kershaw. “By creating a more transparent system where we all bring our best ideas and resources to the table, we’re better able to identify the best solutions to solve our collective challenges and bring tools to the market faster that can improve the whole market.”
To that end, Cargill is busy creating privacy-focused solutions for distributed applications that provide a blockchain-inspired networking space for communication and transactions between organizations. Splinter is the first-of-its-kind open-source solution that allows participating members to combine blockchain-related technology, such as smart contracts and consensus engines, to build a wide variety of organized data systems. The results deliver more real-time inventory data and supply chain visibility to reduce food waste at the origination point and across supply chains. The transparency and live interaction with multiple partners bring quick solutions to participants’ entire value chain network.
THE FUTURE OF TRANSFORMATION
Cargill is developing open-source software that will transform and digitize food supply chains. At the same time, the company serves as a key investor in independent startups forging new ground for the industry.
In 2018, Cargill invested in Ireland-based Cainthus, which uses artificial intelligence with smart cameras to observe nutritional, behavioral, health, and environmental activities of cows and cattle. That data enables the farmer to make better decisions to improve farm operations and animal health. Cainthus has commercially installed cameras on a dozen farms in the U.S., monitoring thousands of cows.
Bushel, an independent software company based in Fargo, North Dakota, is creating software that reaches 40% of grain origination in the U.S., creating the largest technology network among growers and grain buyers with $22 billion in contracted grain within its ecosystem. Cargill has been a supporter of the business and was key in its most recent round of capital investment this spring.
Every day, Cargill’s technology is tracking and sharing vital data with business partners to inform better operations, including more efficient shipping patterns, factory automation, and satellite tracking that monitors land use and climate conditions.
Apps built by Cargill teams use AI and machine learning to reduce waste, such as iQuatic, which provides highly accurate data on shrimp feeding habits. Others leverage predictive analytics that rely on chicken sounds to adjust their care plan. Such seemingly minor changes can help ensure more precise feed usage and production, with a positive effect on animal welfare and ultimately reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
In addition to its incubator enterprise, Cargill opened an Innovation Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The lab, led by the company’s own Digital Labs staff, is working directly with Cargill business leaders, operations teams, and customers to move digital ideas into test mode within weeks.
“This pipeline of talented software engineers and data science students is allowing us to modernize our worldwide supply chains and food systems quickly,” expressed Kershaw. “We need to keep pushing the boundaries of what technology can do. Given the success we see with our advancements and strategic partnerships in the tech industry, I look forward to seeing how we’ll continue to innovate and push ahead to meet the demands of the world.”