This entrepreneur left Wall Street to count the world’s calories. Now she’s warning of a global food disaster equal to the financial crisis.

Michael Cohen/Getty Images for The New York TimesSara Menker at the 2018 New York Times Dealbook in November.
  • Entrepreneur Sara Menker traded in her Wall Street gig to help solve the world’s mounting food crisis.
  • In the next decade, she warned, the world’s food shortage could rival the financial crisis or dot-com crash in terms of its threat to government stability and economic safety.
  • Menker’s company, Gro Intelligence, aims to create a universal language that helps companies, countries, and industries earn money and eliminate food shortages.

When it comes to feeding every person on the planet, the world could fall short of demand by 214 trillion calories per year in less than a decade. That’s more Big Macs than McDonald’s has ever sold, said Sara Menker, the founder and CEO of the software company Gro Intelligence.

Menker often uses this reference to help people understand the extent of the global food crisis – a disaster she believes is imminent.

At Gro, she collects all sorts of data about the world’s agricultural system, from what types of coffee beans are most lucrative to the rise of avocado exports in Mexico. Her company then uses that data to uncover major patterns, like the fact that grain prices tend to follow trends in the oil market.

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The global food shortage is often defined by the weight of crops needed to feed all citizens. But the words “kilogram” or “ton” haven’t done much to convey the threat of food scarcity around the world.

What matters more, according to Menker, is calories – the actual thing that keeps people from going hungry. But even this metric can be confusing.

“It becomes this massive problem that is physically not possible for a human being to process,” said Menker.

Menker said her team floated countless comparisons, including the weight of elephants, before landing on the Big Mac. The anecdote made its way into her 2017 TED Talk, which has been viewed nearly 1.5 million times.

From Wall Street to counting calories

Menker’s path to counting the world’s calories is a bit unorthodox. Before Gro, she was a vice president at Morgan Stanley, where she worked in commodities trading. While there, she went from trading sacks of potatoes for gold to investing in farmland.

Like any good Wall Street exec, she started off looking for the best deal.

She soon realised that the best purchase wasn’t a $US1 per acre plot in a developing country, but a $US15,000 to $US20,000 per acre plot in the Midwest. That’s because investing in the cheaper farmland required borrowing money, obtaining crop insurance, paying for her own trucking service, building her own roads, and levelling her own land.

Coffee farmingJoe Raedle/Getty ImagesA worker dries green coffee beans at a farm in Costa Rica.

The process was inefficient. Governments and investors hadn’t taken the time, or devoted the resources, to figure out how to grow smarter in these areas. With Menker’s help, they can learn how how to fix the system, and begin investing in it.

At Gro, Menker said, “our greatest challenge is actually getting clients to look at all the data.”

Climate data, she said, has been particularly difficult for people to understand, since it “has always sat in the hands of the scientific community.”

By presenting information in a way that clients can digest, Gro has created something of a universal language in agriculture.

Food security involves everyone

Gro not only makes it easy for people like Wall Street traders to understand weather patterns and temperature trends, but it also demonstrates why these trends matter, according to Menker.

“You can’t really tackle trade without understanding climate risk,” she said.

Gro has an altruistic component as well. Consider a grain like quinoa, which has become increasingly popular in Europe and the US. As the global demand for quinoa rises, farmers who grow the crop can no longer afford to purchase it.

Gro allows companies to find areas that yield similar grains, which helps to feed communities. West Africa, for instance, produces a grain called fonio that Menker described as a “quinoa equivalent.”

In this way, her company makes the case for emerging markets – and new companies to go along with them.

Traditional agriculture isn’t going away

The practice of vertical farming has risen in popularity as Menker’s company has grown. Since founding Gro in 2014, Menker has started to anticipate the question: Why care about climate when some farms make it possible to grow massive amounts of crops indoors?

The answer, she said, is that vertical farming is limited to certain crops – mainly leafy greens, which, despite their health benefits, aren’t very caloric.

“The economics work to move leafy greens from outdoor to indoor,” she said. “But you’re not going to solve your rice problem through vertical farming.”

Plenty vertical farmPlentyInside Plenty, a Silicon Valley-based urban farming startup that scored the largest ag-tech investment in history.

Menker said the process is also geared toward solving food problems in wealthy communities.

“We’re talking about feeding the world the basics, let alone the fanciest lettuce or basil,” she said. “Getting a leafy green that’s as close to your home as possible is a privileged economic decision.”

“There are lots of great impacts,” said Menker. “But it won’t solve our looming global food crisis.”

The most viable solution, she said, isn’t to overhaul the world’s agricultural system. It’s to make it more efficient.

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