Flexitarian Eaters Spur Machinery Maker To Action

On a recent trip to Silicon Valley, Horsch Manufacturing founder Michael Horsch took his children and senior management on a quest. They had three objectives: Learn about the latest in change management. Study how artificial intelligence is advancing. And probe the eating habits of California’s tech professionals.

Horsch smiles as he recounts walking into office kitchens, opening refrigerators and taking a peek, much to the embarrassment of his team.

“They are flexitarians,” Horsch reveals. The German-born entrepreneur’s passion for the U.S.—and the future of its food system—is only rivaled by his love of designing and iterating new machinery concepts in hand-drawn blueprints. “The flexitarian movement is the biggest movement in the history of human diet change.”

Horsch isn’t bluffing. He is founder of Europe’s largest shortline equipment manufacturer, producing tillage equipment and the world’s first all-electric-drive planter, and the No. 2 shortline equipment maker worldwide. Horsch sees a fundamental shift coming for the majority of American diets. Rather than relying on hamburgers, French fries, and other dietary staples that have pushed obesity and other chronic health problems to record highs, people will increasingly eat less red meat, much more vegetables, and a little chicken, he thinks.

It took the iPhone approximately 500 weeks to go from zero sales to 3 billion users worldwide, Horsch says. He expects that in the next decade, flexitarian lifestyles will be the rule in most of the developed world, not the exception.

Food trends such as what Horsch describes already have taken root in Europe, where grocers such as Lidl have begun reducing ingredients such as sugar and other food additives. Horsch thinks retailers will increasingly stock more produce and other processing-free products because consumers demand it and will push back with lawsuits if their families, children in particular, develop obesity linked to a poor diet. Rather than talking about the importance of health while continuing to stock unhealthy products, Horsch said, retailers will respond simply by changing their product lineup.

Farmers in Europe already feel the weight of consumer pressure. A majority of German farmers who drive a sprayer through a village will be stopped by police, says Horsch, drawing on accounts he has heard from customers.

If U.S. farmers fail to be proactive by reshaping practices to meet the needs of consumers and the environment, their fate could be similar, he says. Although Horsch says there is no evidence organic food is healthier than conventional food, there is reason to believe some organic practices have a lower environmental footprint.

It’s why he and his team spanning 2,000 global employees and six factories are beginning to design specialized equipment for organic farmers. His own family, which farms 55,000 acres across eastern Germany, Czech Republic and France, pioneered no-till in Europe in the 1960s.

“Probably the future is organic farming with glyphosate,” Horsch quips, then adds: “I’m only raising questions. I’m not saying that this is the answer.”

The food system has fundamental problems that must be addressed honestly, he thinks. Part of the solution lies in openness and public discourse about what the future of food should look like. Three years ago, activists in Europe turned the public against Roundup Ready soybeans and GMOs, Horsch says. They’ve since moved on in the past 15 months to an effort to ban glyphosate, which Horsch says science has proven to be safe and is an important weed-control tool for farmers across the world.

By proactively acknowledging the environmental outcomes of food production, Horsch thinks, there is an opportunity to change the conversation permanently.

“More and more professional U.S. farmers are considering organic,” Horsch says. “Conventional farming is too intensive with not enough rotation, too much chemicals and fertilizer, and overstressing of soil and water tables.”

In particular, the act of spraying farm chemicals has been far too inefficient in the past, Horsch says. It’s why Horsch is planning a future introduction of its European-based, pull-type Leeb sprayers to the U.S. market. A small box with sensors and a gyroscope ensures the boom remains level and roughly 15” to 18” above the crop canopy, even as it travels over bumps in fields. Nozzles are spaced every 10” at 80-degree angles, decreasing per-acre water use and limiting overapplication of chemicals.

Innovations such as these will result in more autonomous equipment in the future, which farmers will safely operate because of technology that limits environmental impact, Horsch points out.

For all of the changes Horsch sees on the horizon, his company is ramping up its commitment to conventional farmers and their equipment needs. He put that mission to the test recently when a Switzerland-based foundation supportive of organic farming invited him to place membership. In front of a public gathering of organic farmers, Horsch watched as one after another stood up and proclaimed conventional methods often are more sustainable and better for the environment.

To Horsch, this revelation suggested farmers from all production practices can learn from one another and work toward a better future for the food system. By incorporating a more diverse mixture of crops into their operations, Horsch thinks farmers can position themselves for greater profitability and connectivity to consumers.

“The first question is, What are we going to eat in the future?” Horsch says.