In our continuing series on lucrative micro-niche practice areas for lawyers, we examined how technology is dramatically changing the face of agriculture and how some lawyers and law firms can take to stake a claim in this rapidly developing field.
Imagine driverless tractors tilling acres of crops, produce growing in massive climate-controlled warehouses, and seeds genetically altered to require less water. These and other modern marvels are among the high-tech innovations changing, or about to change, the centuries-old face of agriculture.
Indeed, as today’s technology rushes into one of the last traditional industries, it’s creating another potentially lucrative micro-niche practice area for lawyers. For lawyers willing to invest time and resources into this area, the agriculture technology (AgTech) micro-niche practice, existing in a market sector that until recently was largely unaffected by the technological revolution, could be a profitable pursuit.
Already there are numerous law firms that hold themselves out as having both global food and agribusiness practices (like, Norton Rose Fulbright and Sidley Austin) and national practices (like Mayer Brown and Faegre Baker Daniels). Only a few firms — most notably, California-based Royse Law Firm — are widely recognized for expertise in the agriculture technology (AgTech) micro-niche.
“Throughout the years, our team has worked with countless agricultural producers, investors, and tech companies on projects related to artificial intelligence, big data, biotech, communications, drones, farm management, IoT, and satellites,” the Royse Law website states.
The other noteworthy player that has identified AgTech as a niche practice, Husch Blackwell fields a five -lawyer team (and perhaps that is because of their intense industry-centric approach) that “helps businesses capitalize on the opportunities presented by today’s agricultural revolution — big data, gene editing, nanotechnology, unmanned aircraft systems and other advances,” the firm says.
The Growth of AgTech
Just a few years back, no one seemed eager to talk about AgTech or even know what it meant; but today it’s one of the hot new areas in investor circles. In 2017, total investment was more than $1.5 billion and seemed on the verge of explosive growth, which is largely fueled by a growing population that needs to eat. And this is not about developing new, synthetic chemicals to apply to fields, or building ever larger corporate farms. At its core, AgTech is about using advanced monitoring and data analysis to do more with less — finding ways to increase yields without burdening already overtaxed land and water resources.
Right now, a cross-section of technologies and disciplines — from sensors, artificial intelligence, big data to biotech and robotics — are being used by entrepreneurial startups to boost food supplies.
Lawyers would be smart to look at these start-ups and the technological initiatives they’re pursuing, such as:
- Hortau Systems and Isreal-based CropX are monitoring water efficiency and measuring of soil moisture, allowing farmers to save water;
- Phytech is developing smart devices send simple color-coded alerts from the fields;
- Cainthus, an AI facial recognition software for cows, allows farmers to track larger herds; and
- aWhere is a next-gen Farmers’ Almanac, monitoring and forecasting the weather.
Let’s Not Overlook The Use of Robotics
We tend to think of robots as they exist in industrial factories, performing the same task repeatedly, in exactly the same way. But with AgTech, drones and robots from companies like Farmbot are filling the farm labor gap, with drag-and-drop interfaces that allow farmers to build sequences of actions for hardware or set repeating growing schedules.
Another robot developed in a Cambridge University lab can remove unwanted outer layers from freshly picked heads of lettuce, a task that farm workers generally do by hand. And, in Europe they have a creepy-cute robot called Sweeper that can autonomously roam a greenhouse, eyeballing peppers to determine if they’re mature enough before sawing them off the plant and placing them in the produce basket.
And Ohio will soon see the first fully automated indoor farm in the United States. 80 Acres Farms plans to build it near Cincinnati, by the end of the year. The farm will have grow-centers for greens, such as herbs and kale, and will supply produce to multiple retailers and distributors.
Meanwhile, change has even come to the cows. On one dairy farm in Iceland, the owners rebuilt their barns from the ground up with technologies such as milking robots, an automatic feeding system and cleaning robots. Within a year, their 80 cows were producing 30% more milk. Further, the rate of infections plummeted, dramatically reducing the farm’s veterinarian costs.
All of this technological development needs legal oversight as players in this area will require intellectual property and copyright protections, contracting expertise, risk and trade management advice, and regulatory compliance guidance.
However, there’s one difference between this AgTech revolution and other tech disruptions that have preceded it: Most of us, lawyers included, won’t actually notice it’s happening.
The “digital transformation” of agriculture is necessary if we want to continue filling our baskets with healthy, affordable food. To make the most of what we have for a growing population, a radical shift is needed — and legal guidance is needed as well — as we rethink how we do agriculture.