Sara Menker Among America’s Greatest Disruptors: Planet Protectors


AI and Big Data to Help Feed the World


By 2050, the United Nations says, we’re going to need 70 percent more food to feed the nine billion people living on Earth. Global climate change threatens to upend their lives—worsening storms, droughts, heat waves and crop diseases. What kind of a world will we leave to our grandchildren?
Sara Menker says the problem may be even more urgent than the U.N. suggests. In 2017, she gave a TED talk in which she said a “tipping point,” beyond which global food markets become too overwhelmed to function effectively, could come in just a few years.

“We discovered that the world will be short 214 trillion calories by 2027,” she said. Or, in more familiar terms: “A single Big Mac has 563 calories. That means the world will be short 379 billion Big Macs in 2027. That is more Big Macs than McDonald’s has ever produced.”
Menker cannot change the world alone. But the firm she started, Gro Intelligence, is providing information that food companies, insurers, lenders and policymakers use to make food production more efficient, and perhaps help protect against that tipping point.

Gro says it tracks 650 trillion data points daily—from sources such as government and local food reports, satellite imagery, long-term weather forecasts and greenhouse gas measurements—and creates computer models so that clients, such as Unilever and Yum! Brands, can know how prices are likely to trend, anticipate surpluses and shortages, and be more resilient when climate change makes food supplies harder to predict.

A type of artificial intelligence known as machine learning is key to crunching the numbers because, as Allison Tepley of Gro’s staff put it, “The best information is often local information, but it’s often in local languages, in different formats and it all needs to be put together.”

This is a larger compilation of food-supply data than decision-makers can find elsewhere. Gro tracks 1,000 different crops; the U.S. Agriculture Department tracks about 50. The level of detail, says the firm, is essential to catch trouble quickly and help producers take action to protect the food supply.

Gro has sounded alerts on African swine fever in China (which cut pork production 30 percent in 2018), locust infestation in East Africa in 2020 and global inflation in food prices—worsened in the short term by COVID and long term by climate disruption.
“It’s not something that’s going to go away soon,” says Menker. “It’s basically driven both by supply and demand shocks continuously happening.”

She was born in Ethiopia, came to the U.S. for college and business school and was working as a commodities trader at Morgan Stanley when she saw the chaos in food markets. She started Gro in 2014. “What alarmed me,” she says, “was there was a lot of conversation about food security and a lot of people trying to fix a system that we didn’t understand.”

History is filled, of course, with predictions of disaster that never happened. And Menker says there are many things the world can do now. America and Europe, for instance, enjoyed a so-called green revolution in the last century—doubling or tripling food output because of new crops and farming methods. India has had one, too. No countries in Africa have yet, but they still can.

Part of the answer, she says, is in adopting many of the commercial practices that have worked in the wealthier countries—more efficient markets, better transportation and changes in farming that will both increase the food supply and protect the environment. And her own work shows, she says, that “the most critical tool for success in the [food] industry—data and knowledge—is becoming cheaper by the day.” —Ned Potter