More than 300 people gathered in Mountain View for the fourth annual FOOD IT: Fork to Farm on June 27 to discuss the role of information technology in the food system – from managing crops in the field to dealing with consumer food waste.
The event, hosted by The Mixing Bowl, attracted professionals who intersect with every part of the food system, from farmers to scientists, from entrepreneurs to venture capital investors.
Panelists discussed the shift in power caused by the rise of the tech-enabled food consumer, its effects on food production and supply as well as implications for society.
VP Glenda Humiston announced that UC ANR is launching The VINE, or The Verde Innovation Network for Entrepreneurship, to cultivate regional innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystems in rural communities. Led by Gabriel Youtsey, UC ANR chief innovation officer, The VINE aims to bring together resources such as small business development centers, community colleges, county cooperative extension offices, makers labs, incubators and accelerators.
“We're trying to go in region by region to catalyze a coalition,” Humiston said. “We want to make sure innovators and inventors can go from idea to commercialization with all the support they need.”
The VINE would connect innovators with legal advice, someone to discuss finances, access to people who can help with business plans and opportunities to partner with the university on joint research projects.
“We want to make it possible for anyone in California to access support,” Humiston said. “If you're in an urban area or near a campus, you probably have access to those resources. If you're in agriculture, natural resources or more remote rural communities, you typically have little access.”
On a panel of agriculture college deans from Iowa State, Cal Poly and UC Davis moderated by Humiston, the deans lamented the lagging interest in farming by young people.
"Everybody wants to be a vegetarian, but nobody wants to be a plant scientist,” said Helene Dillard, dean of the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Humiston said that farming isn't just for young people. "We see people making mid-career changes."
Throughout the day, several people speculated that Amazon's buying of Whole Foods would mix things up. Dean Andy Thulin of Cal Poly's College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences said tech makes food sexy.
Wendy Wintersteen, dean of Iowa State University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said that consumers are more informed. Millennials want to know what is in their food and are concerned about food safety, allergens and are willing to spend more on food.
On a panel discussing “Changing Food Preferences of the Tech-Enabled Consumer,” Walmart executive Katie Finnegan noted that Apeel, a product that coats produce and keeps it fresh longer, could reduce food waste and change the food supply chain. “A small change can have a big impact,” she said.
For years, life expectancy for Americans has gradually increased. Last year, for the first time, life expectancy decreased due to obesity and poverty, said Justin Siegal of UC Davis Genome Center.
Kevin Sanchez of the Yolo County Food Bank said he has been developing relationships with farms to get fresh food to people, but added, “We have a storage challenge.”
Discussing “Upstream Production Impacts of New Consumer Food Choices,”Driscoll's Nolan Paul said, “People want to know where the berries are from.” They ask about the tools used for breeding. Paul said Driscoll's will never use genetic engineering unless consumers on board with it.
On the Internet of Tomatoes panel, representatives for Analog Devices, Bowles Farming and Campbells talked about using data on weather, water, soil and other things to grow higher quality tomatoes and using optical grading at processing plants for quality control. Bowles Farming has also have begun using Instagram to engage consumers in conversations about farming issues that commodity marketing groups try to avoid, such as unintended consequences of some policies.
UC ANR was a cosponsor of the event, which delighted conference participants with exhibits featuring array of futuristic devices like printing your own pancake or tortilla.