Yesterday I attended a free event called Farm to Fork Live! It was put on by a Sacramento-based organization called Valley Vision. Valley Vision is focused on community innovation in the Sacramento region. This year’s Farm to Fork Live had the theme of agriculture technology, specifically where these two fields intersect. I heard about the event through the Valley Vision email newsletter.
I attended the first half of the event which was held at Woodland Community College. Woodland is about 20 miles east of the state capitol building in Sacramento. The backdrop for the WCC campus is acres and acres of farmland broken up by newly constructed housing developments. As Woodland’s mayor, Xóchtil Rodriguez, said in her introduction, Woodland is the epicenter of food production in the Sacramento region. This is highlighted by Woodland’s new city-wide “Food Front” campaign. “Food Front” is an appropriately complementary brand for this neighboring city of the self-proclaimed “Farm-to-Fork” capitol, Sacramento.
Attendees included representatives from government, for-profit and non-profit organizations, academia, and community members. Notably, there was a representative from Congressman John Garimendi’s office present. The event was opened by a few words from Trish Kelly of Valley Vision, and then she introduced the first speaker, Gabe Youtsey of the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR).
Youtsey began by reminding the audience of some important facts about California and its economy. California is the #1 agriculture producing state in the U.S.- including #1 in dairy production. California also produces two-thirds of all fruits, vegetables and nuts in the U.S. We’re not all coastline and beaches out here in California! There is some serious farmland out here as well! If you’ve ever driven from one end of the state to the other via the I-5 or Highway 99, then you may have noticed the extent of hardcore farming happening in the heart of the state.
California is producing literal tons of food. However, Youtsey pointed out that the food demand is projected to increase by more than 40% in the coming years, but as our world population grows and climate change ramps up, our global resources are becoming more scarce. We have to learn how to use what we have more wisely in order to keep up with the food production demand. This is where technology comes in. Agriculture technology can mean many different things from the genetics that go into a seed, to the machines that are used to harvest, weed and apply fertilizers to fields, to the meters used to measure nutrients and moisture contents in soils. Technologies are being developed to help meet the emerging challenges in agriculture.
One of the central themes and purposes of the event was to foster conversations across industries so that these industries can put their work together to develop new innovative ideas. Many of the organizations represented at the event were involved in work which required them to work “across the aisle” with different industries. Some of the organizations were working to educate about agriculture technologies, others were developing the technologies themselves, while still others were providing the physical spaces and materials needed to foster the development of new ag technologies.
The next two speakers were Dr. Martin Ruebelt from Bayer Crop Sciences and Dr. Amit Vasavada from Marrone Bioinnovations. Bayer is a huge international company that is spread out to 160 countries, and it is notably the parent company of Monsanto. Marrone Bioinnovations makes biopesticides, and they are based out of Davis, CA. These two companies as well as many others are present in Davis and Woodland specifically because it is a hub where food academia, research, and production intersect.
Trish Kelly from Valley Vision moderated the discussion with these two speakers and asked them a series of questions. Her two key questions boiled down to 1) What is our future?, and 2) How do we make those visions of the future a reality? Dr. Vasavada answered that we must use data to see our way forward, and the industry needs to fund students in higher education who are studying STEM fields. Dr. Ruebelt agreed and added that tailored solutions based on data were key. Dr. Ruebelt also added that starting STEM education early in schools will help prepare the next generation to meet the technology challenges of the future.
An additional comment Dr. Ruebelt made was that people need to not be afraid of innovation. This comment landed with mixed reactions. It brought up the issue of bioethics and the speed at which new technologies are often introduced. One of the audience members thoughtfully commented that although she was not afraid of the progress of technology, she was concerned with the speed of the progress at times. An example the audience member gave of a technology that had been accepted and implemented too hastily was DDT. This chemical had initially been thought of as safe until some of its detrimental impacts were realized too late.
Another audience member added his thoughts towards the end of this discussion that transparency and equitable education about new technologies are paramount to ethical distribution and adoption of technology.
Unfortunately, I did not stay for the second half of the event which was held at a separate location in Woodland, however, I enjoyed the half that I did get to attend. It was interesting to hear from leaders in the agriculture industry about where they think the future of agriculture is going. Some of the outlooks for the future of agriculture are grim, but this discussion on the future of agriculture technology has shed some hope on my outlook.