Q&A with Mark Hassenkamp, Chief Agriculture Operations Officer from LIVEKINDLY Collective
We sat down with Mark Hassenkamp, Chief Agriculture Operations Officer from LIVEKINDLY Collective, a leading plant-based food company with a mission to build a healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable food system. Mark is an agriculture veteran and is tasked with scaling their ag operations to meet the accelerating growth in demand for plant-based foods.
We discuss what the plant-based foods revolution means for agriculture and why the LIVEKINDLY Collective is more than just a food company. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
ClimateAi: Your team is doing things very differently. Tell us a bit about LIVEKINDLY Collective’s mission and the role your team seeks to play in the food system?
Mark Hassenkamp: The main goal here is to actively contribute to sustainable farming practices and to healthy eating. We are looking to grow that space because our very survival depends on it. To achieve that I think there are two fundamental step changes that are enabling this transition: biotech and info-tech.
For biotech, we are now looking for different genetics than we did in the past. Previously in the ag world, much of our attention was dedicated to GMO modifications to support chemical tolerances and to drive total yields, whereas now we are looking for non-GMO selections that provide for flavor, healthy fats, Omega-3s, high protein foods, selections that yield well in and are well suited to certain climates. Yield still matters, but how we get there and that total cost to the environment and health is now a headline consideration.
For info-tech, we are using Big Data, AI, robotics, more than we ever did. Drones are already being utilized in field cropping activities. We have also got new technology in automated tractors, working on GPS and smart systems, running data collection and processing that humans could not manage to date. For example, we plant an individual seed at a specific GPS location and harvest that seed 3 to 6 months later, then calibrate the efficiency of that yield down to the level of the carbohydrate accumulation within the plant. And all that data goes back to segregate genetics, to identify better performing seeds, grains, nuts, crops, whatever it may be, specific to that growing region’s conditions. We have this really exciting cycle of infotech and biotech finding each other in farming practices.
So, we are moving forward, leveraging the gains of the 4th industrial revolution. The Silicon Valley learnings from the Age of the Internet are now being applied to the biggest factory on Earth, and that’s agriculture.
But we also understand that what got us here is not what is going to get us where we need to go. Farmers realize that we are working in an environment of diminishing returns and diminishing and even un-replenishable resources such as water and soil. So, we have got the opportunity to use genetics and Big Data and common sense of course, to our advantage and reverse this damage as every opportunity.
The biggest carbon sink on earth is soil, right? So, we can use the tools we now have at our disposal, this exciting IP, to regenerate the soil, to get fertility and yields back, and to get nutrition back in the ground and into the food that eat. We have to do things differently, but it takes commitment. No matter what, come COVID, come climate change, come pestilence, we are all still going to have to eat. Here at the LIVEKINDLY Collective, we view plant-based foods as one piece of the much larger solution: a mission to reset, refresh, regenerate, and redistribute value across our food system.
ClimateAi: As demand continues to rise for plant-based proteins, supply chains supporting these foods are scaling and adapting rapidly. How does LIVEKINDLY Collective think about this scaling challenge and what is required to execute well?
Hassenkamp: You are 100% right — demand for plant-based foods has skyrocketed for the past few years and continues to rise. We are growing fast and hard to meet this demand, and we need to make sure we do things right so we can sustain and succeed in the long run. The key is in ensuring that there is a fair and predictable spread of incentive and value for each player in the supply chain, starting with farmers. If this is not achieved, growth efforts will not be sustainable, and we will not achieve the volume and price efficiencies necessary to eventually compete with animal-based proteins. The value needs to be shared equitably along the value chain. In the past, there were gatekeepers and middlemen that monopolized supply chains over time. Those were largely the players who were not exposed to the most risk — it is the farmers who are exposed to the risk.
Food companies are collecting a premium on many of these plant-based foods, but it is not possible to place innovative, exciting, tasty, healthy and affordable, plant-based foods on the shelf without the farmer who makes this happen and takes the initial risk. So, you have to pay them for it: We have to share the value equitably if we want to build a successful and sustainable ag sourcing system.
The key to early success here has been to seek out mission-driven groups. Many of the farmers that we work with are top-notch farmers coming out of sunset commodity industries like grains, sugar, where the market has been in the decline over the past few years. They are highly skilled farmers. We bring a new take off and market placement and support them make their production shifts to working with a new crop but they are good farmers and pick it up very quickly. Other farmers are excellent grain farmers but want to diversify markets and risks and embrace innovation. Across the board, they are highly progressive, early tech adopters on the bell curve, and they are seeing value in what we offer: new data, analytics, platforms, market access, suitability, a regenerative farming focus, and a mission they can get behind.
We are taking a long-term view. Our ambition is to generate volume to get more clean-sourced healthy products onto the shelves, to bring price points down. If we cannot do that, we do not have the impact on the problem we are trying to solve of offsetting and offering alternatives to diversify from industrial livestock production.
There is also a massive opportunity in our blockchain system: carbon sequestration. We can measure the before and after of carbon sequestration based on the farmer’s practices. We can monetize that, one of two ways: we offset it against the final product, or the farmer directly converts those carbon credits into currency and reinvestment in sustainability and better utilization of climate-smart tools and machinery, like pumps and machinery, for example, decreasing the farming impact footprint even more leading to better returns and demand.
What I want to emphasize is a key element in all this: the concept of incremental change. It is important to understand the true gravity of increment — the definition of increment is that of “a slight or imperceptible shift in direction or trajectory — so slight that we can hardly measure it” but every time we get it right and every farmer we work with, this eventually leads to massive opportunity for deviation for the good or for the worse…. That is how we got into this situation., by incremental shifts for the worse, and we moved in the wrong direction. Now we have an opportunity to reverse damage. There is a new collective mindset to find solutions, to accelerate a change in mindset, a change in productivity, change in incentive, to move in a positive direction collectively incrementally and measurably.
ClimateAi: What are the main bottlenecks to achieving scale in your agriculture operations?
Hassenkamp: Our focus is really just ramping up clean-sourced supply enough to be able to meet the growing demand for healthy plant-based foods. Our current primary bottleneck is simple: getting enough high-quality, traceable clean-sourced raw materials. We are accelerating the growing global plant-based food conversion by leveraging unique germplasm (seed genetics), digital tools, and operational scale to grow more clean, affordable, high-quality food.
Processing capacity will be our next bottleneck as we accelerate crop volumes. We are, of course, working hard across our collective partnerships to pre-emptively address the new demand and the growing pains it would otherwise place on the supply chain.