Following Food, Health and Environmental Future Day at the 2018 BIO International Convention, BIO’s Executive Vice President Dana O’Brien and other members of BIO’s Food and Agriculture team embarked on a national tour to meet with BIO members and other business leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators working across the food innovation ecosystem.
BIO’s “Innovate for the Future” Tour included a trip down to Salinas, the city also known as America’s Salad Bowl, nestled on the central coast of California. Fans of John Steinbeck and fresh vegetables alike would both have been pleased to attend the 2018 Forbes AgTech Summit there, though the organizers probably had the latter more in mind. Fortunately for me, the spirit of collaboration was alive and well and it was a thrill to represent BIO among so many leading innovators in today’s agtech innovation ecosystem.
The summit began right where you might expect for an event in the nation’s Salad Bowl. While attendees had several options of farm tours to kick off the Forbes-hosted event, I found myself at Taylor Farms, a producer of salads, fresh-cut fruits and vegetables in the food service, deli, and retail sectors. Before touring their Salinas facility, much of which is kept at a brisk 36 degrees Fahrenheit, we learned about their investments in field and processing automation, the innovations that are driving productivity and improving safety and ergonomic conditions for Taylor’s employees and partners.
Once inside the refrigerated salad-packaging plant, we were greeted by high-stacked crates of fresh-picked produce, rows of conveyor belts steadily advancing mounds of fresh lettuce into chlorinated baths, a choir of shakers humming the greens dry, and a chorus line of caffeinated robots efficiently packing and sealing the garden mixes into plastic containers, which are summarily labeled and moved two at a time into cardboard shipping boxes…and all this with only the lightest and rarest touch from human hands, members of an orchestra conducted by the nimble arms of these proficient robots. This testament to human ingenuity invited both awe and a more-than-subtle craving for salad.
Taylor Farms proved to be not only an impressive facility, but an apt start to a program that highlighted the labor challenges many agricultural producers are facing, and the astounding technologies companies like Taylor Farms and start-ups like Augean Robotics are developing to address those challenges.
While you might think that building robots to harvest produce is all about the hardware, we heard from Dr. John Purcell at Monsanto Company about a collaboration with Church Brothers Farms that involved driving plant genetics to align plant architecture with robotics and automation, and conversely adapting the machinery to match the plant genetics, in their efforts to build a broccoli harvester. What other collaborations between plant breeders, robot designers, and food producers await agriculture, I wondered as I left the session.
But it wasn’t all robots and leafy greens at Forbes AgTech Salinas. Other sessions included discussion of applications of blockchain technology in today’s food system. The IBM Food Trust, a collaboration between IBM, Walmart, and ten leading food companies is working to improve food safety and supply chain efficiency by turning the paper trail that defines much of commerce today into the digital ledger that is blockchain. And as you can increase the velocity and traceability of product in the food supply, blockchain also promises to help in tackling food waste.
The program also highlighted soil health, an area of increasing research and investment. The value for farmers, and for all of us, is to continue down the path of optimizing inputs—using what you need and no more. According to Sarah Bloch, Senior Scientist at Pivot Bio, only about half of the nitrogen added in fertilizers ends up in the plant. The challenge is to optimize resource use, minimize greenhouse gas emissions, improve water quality by reducing nutrient runoff into our waterways, and enhance agricultural productivity. Pivot Bio’s solution to this multi-faceted dilemma is a microbe that lives on the roots of the plant and helps deliver the right amount of nitrogen to the plant at the right time through a natural microbial process.
Such was the tone of the Forbes AgTech Summit: a sober recognition of the challenges that face us, and an optimistic outlook on and preview of the innovative technologies and practices American farmers and food companies are adopting to solve those challenges. Innovation permeated the atmosphere at Forbes AgTech Salinas 2018, an exciting stop on BIO’s Innovate for the Future Tour. And though it felt a far cry from the Salinas Steinbeck knew, the sense of creativity and dynamism honored well the author synonymous with this garden town in the golden state.