During roundtable discussions at the recent Ag Innovation Showcase in Davis, participants expressed both caution and excitement about the future of diverse areas of food and agriculture innovation including: animal health and production, drones and robotics, food and beverage processing, and water management innovation.
General challenges for food and agriculture innovation
Discussions elevated several common challenges in the status quo across the multiple topics:
- The values of universities where knowledge is developed differ from the values of early stage commercialization endeavors where solutions are envisioned, making the process of commercializing university science and technology a challenge.
- New technologies are seductive, yet impact and business success arise from a solution enabled by a technology not the technology per se.
- Innovation arises from R&D, however, the current levels of public investment in R&D funding for food agriculture research in the US limit innovation in these areas.
- Trust, often elusive, is critical to adoption for 2 key stakeholders in the food production system and it is fragile. Science and the value of evidence are under threat. Information competes with misinformation. Who provides the information matters as much as what the information is.
- Innovation in agriculture is a long game: one needs to think 5-10 years ahead
Despite the challenges, optimism persists and innovation continues. Much like the classic words of Charles Dickens: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…(Tale of Two Cities)
Roundtable on animal health and production
Participants for the roundtable on animal health and production brought the perspectives of: university and extension science, entrepreneurship, dairy operations, family office investor, not-for-profit research management, and agriculture innovation services. The UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Dean Michael Lairmore, hosted the roundtable and his colleagues treated participants to an informative and fun tour of the large animal facilities.
Both ends of the food value system are driving innovation in animal production and health- the farmer and the consumer. The farmer needs to produce more at lower costs and with lower environmental impacts and at higher value to remain profitable and environmentally sustainable. Dairy owner and operator, Aaron Wickstrom, of Wickstrom Dairies expressed the need for continued development in three areas: 1) diagnostic tools for diseases that are cost effective, reliable, and detect earlier enough to enable operation decisions and cost savings 2) automation to relieve skilled labor for sophisticated tasks, and 3) greater understanding based on good science of the interplay between nutrition, health, and disease susceptibility.
Consumers, while varied in their ages, cultures, economic resources, levels of education and technical sophistication, and lifestyles (urban vs. rural) are driving producers to track and simplify their ingredients and to re-examine what quality means. Stephen Hohenrieder CEO and Chief Investment Officer, Meyer Family Enterprises shared two examples of a new relationship between food producers and customers representing two distinct market segments. 1) Prather Ranch a vertically integrated ranch to packaged meat producer has developed trust with its customers, based on its commitment to providing high quality beef to customers and is able to sell at a premium. 2) Walmart has entered into the ugly fruit market selling “I’m Perfect,” apples that are tasty and nutritious and low cost but bear cosmetic imperfections, reversing the practice of sending such produce to the landfill instead of into consumers’ shopping baskets.
James Oltjen, Extension Specialist, Department of Animal Science, UC Davis, contrasted examples of technologies, software in particular, that met sufficient demand to those that did not and thus failed to become commercial products. Among those that failed commercially was GIS tracking of beef cattle, failing because ranchers only need that level of information several times a year. While in contrast two examples of technology that farmers and ranchers are adopting: 1) weight measurement at the water trough to provide recurring information about animal health and 2) drug testing for high end bulls in the breeding industry.
Technologies to keep an eye on from the UC Davis science community include: satellite imaging for water availability and disease epidemic predictions based upon animal migratory patterns.
A final trend that bodes well for the attraction of human talent for the future of innovation in food and agriculture is the interest among college students. The Stanford University Food and Ag club now an active student participation and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis has had record interest in recent years, 20,000 students applied in 2016.
If you are an entrepreneur, investor, or a leader in the food and ag industries, don’t miss the opportunity to continue building key relationships to drive commercialization of innovations and continue the conversation. Learn more about the Ag Innovation Showcase in St Louis, September 11-13, here. Register here.