AgTech Summit Keynote

June 28, 2017

President Janet Napolitano gave the keynote address at the Forbes AgTech Summit in Salinas, CA on June 28, 2017. Here are her remarks as prepared for delivery:

Thank you for that warm introduction, Mike! It’s wonderful to be here today for the third Forbes AgTech Summit.
It is fitting that a summit focused on agriculture and innovation is convened here in Salinas. This valley is known as “the nation’s salad bowl,” growing much of our lettuce, spinach, broccoli, and more.
And just 60 miles from here is another valley, one known for growing some of our nation’s best ideas and world-changing innovations. Silicon Valley is the birthplace of companies big and small—some of which are just getting started in a garage, a dorm room, or a coffee shop somewhere, while others have produced technology that’s now so deeply ingrained in our lives, it’s difficult to imagine how we managed without it.
That these two valleys—Salinas and Silicon—both exist in California, and that they are thriving so close to one another, is no surprise. The drive to create, to innovate, and to look beyond the obvious has always been innately Californian. And that fervent passion has taken hold in the state’s great agricultural valleys, just as it has in its tech-driven cities and towns.
The Forbes AgTech Summit brings together individuals and institutions from two integral parts of California’s economic engine—agriculture and technology. The two have historically remained on parallel paths, each fueling the state’s growth, but rarely converging. Yet, this is a unique moment here in California, and we have a unique opportunity in this nexus of agricultural bounty and technological innovation.
California is at the epicenter of unprecedented challenges to our ecosystem as a whole, and to our food system in particular: a changing climate. Years of drought. The deteriorating health of our soils. And a shrinking supply of skilled farm workers, just to name a few. Simultaneously, we must confront how we will feed a growing global population, including Californians who still lack access to fresh and nutritious food.
The English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote in 1625, “He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils; for time is the greatest innovator.”
We are at a critical point for finding and applying new remedies. Both the agriculture and technology industries recognize the challenges we face and are working on them from different angles. But as our state, nation, and the world confront these problems, the brains behind California agriculture and technology sectors must grow and innovate together to keep our communities and our economy strong.
At the University of California, we, too, are looking beyond the obvious and bringing together the greatest minds from fields as varied as art and physics, music and biology, to find powerful remedies to global challenges.
We started the UC Global Food Initiative three years ago to find scalable solutions to sustainably and nutritiously feed a growing world population — one that’s expected to reach 8 billion people by 2025.
And we launched the UC Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative to steer creative solutions through our research labs and classrooms, and out into our communities and the global economy. In fact, the University of California leads the world among universities granted U.S. patents. And UC produces roughly five new inventions every day.
At the same time, for more than a hundred years, people at UC Agriculture and Natural Resources have equipped farmers across the state with the latest scientific and technological advances in agriculture. UC ANR experts work in the field from the desert just north of the Mexican border all the way to the northernmost stretches of Siskiyou County.
They connect cutting-edge innovation with the state’s farmers, who produce half of the nation’s fruit and vegetables and export food to countries around the world. And they are constantly generating and testing new ideas.
One of those ideas might just turn California’s agriculture industry, or the tech world, or both, on their heads.
Possibilities that have long been considered far-fetched or impractical are becoming more viable, thanks to new technologies developed at UC. We know, for example, that greenhouses can solve a number of perennial farming problems, but they have remained largely out of reach for farmers because of high energy costs. Now, solar-powered greenhouses – using technology developed at the Thin-Film Opto-electronics Laboratory at UC Santa Cruz – could change that by decreasing initial capital costs and dramatically lowering the cost of powering their operation.
University of California researchers are also devising innovative approaches to age-old food system problems. Let me tell you about one of these solutions.
James Rogers used to make the long drive from his Ph.D. program at UC Santa Barbara to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where he was conducting research on flexible solar cell systems.
It was on one of these regular commutes, on a long stretch of highway surrounded by lush farmland, that Rogers happened to hear a news program on world hunger. He wondered how it was possible for such an issue to persist despite the abundance around him.
When he got back to his lab, Rogers did a little digging – or Googling, if you like—and found something that shocked him:
One-third to one-half of all harvested produce ends up in a landfill.
The problem, he concluded, wasn’t growing enough food. The problem was storing it, and keeping it fresh.
To find a solution, Rogers drew upon his training as a materials scientist and engineer. As an undergraduate studying at Carnegie Mellon University, in the heart of steel country, Rogers learned about the clever trick that metallurgists devised to protect steel from rusting. They added atoms to iron that would react with oxygen and create a protective barrier around the metal. Maybe, he thought, the same effect could be achieved with fresh produce.
Rogers pulled out his old biochemistry textbook and turned to Chapter 11. There, he found possible molecules to create a protective barrier that was also edible. From that moment of curiosity and ingenuity, his start-up company, Apeel Sciences, was born.
Since its establishment five years ago, the company has invented an all-natural protective barrier that nearly doubles the shelf life of fresh fruits and vegetables. They figured out a way to do this with more than two dozen crops. Their work has the potential to solve a persistent problem for the agriculture and food processing industries, and dramatically advance our fight against food waste.
And then, in some cases, innovation emerges when we bring fresh eyes to a difficult problem.
Or, in this case, fresh ears.
This story begins with the small but mighty bark beetle. Driven by conditions caused by climate change, the beetle has been killing millions of drought-weakened pine trees throughout the West, from the Yukon, all the way to Mexico.
David Dunn, an artist and a music professor at UC Santa Cruz, took a special interest in the bark beetle. In particular, he was intrigued by the possibility of listening to the sounds of this mass destruction. Dunn built a cheap instrument to listen to the dying pine trees, and compiled hundreds of hours of sound. From that, he created a CD called “The Sound of Light in Trees.”
Now, this was a differentkind of beetles record—it didn’t make it to the top of the music charts. But it did capture the attention of forest scientists at Northern Arizona University. Together, Dunn and these researchers began testing whether they could use the recordings against the beetles to affect their behavior and combat the forest destruction. And this led to an amazing discovery.
The team just received a patent on a device that sonically disrupts bark beetles. Not only did they create a new tool to fight the pine-destroying bark beetles, but they may have helped identify a potential solution for other problems, including the threat of ambrosia beetles to California’s avocado industry.
From protecting iron to preserving salad greens. From recording the sounds of nature to saving it. Elegant solutions are borne out of diverse minds approaching a challenge from different vantage points – and working together to solve it.
As we confront the problems facing California today, we must ask ourselves, how will ag and tech solve these together? How can SalinasValley and SiliconValley work more harmoniously, and how will the University of California’s quest for new knowledge play a role?
Agtech may be a catchy buzzword. But there is substance beneath the surface. Agriculture has Silicon Valley’s attention; according to the online news company TechCrunch, ag-tech start-ups have raised more than 320 million dollars so far this year–that’s more than a three-fold increase over the same period last year.
For some, it may be all about cashing in on the latest gold rush. But for those of us here today, and for those of us at the University of California, it’s about using ingenuity to engineer desperately-needed solutions. It’s about combining our strengths and collaborating to ensure a stable future, a healthy environment, and a strong economy for communities here in California and across the globe. The University of California can help enhance these conversations, drive innovation, and educate future inventors and agricultural leaders.
Human beings tend to set limits informed by individual mindsets, or habits, or intellectual traditions. But being able to look beyond our limited field of vision—to see the bigger picture and find common ground with others—is essential to achieving our shared goals. We’re in John Steinbeck country, so let me use his words to help illustrate this point.
In 1940, Steinbeck was coping with both fame and infamy, having published a best-selling novel that was quite controversial at the time – in the agricultural community in particular. The San Jose public library refused to stock The Grapes of Wrath; Kern County banned it completely.
In part to get away from the hubbub, Steinbeck accompanied his friend, the marine biologist Ed Rickets, on an expedition to the Sea of Cortez. And it was in the travel log from that journey that Steinbeck articulated the value of seeing the bigger picture.
“It seems advisable,” he wrote, “to look from the tide pools… to the stars… and then back to the tide pools.”
That is precisely what we—the growers, the inventors, the educators—must do today.
There is a great possibility for a deeper conversation, a more productive partnership, between the great valleys of California – Silicon to Salinas, and beyond. And there is no limit to what we can accomplish together.
Thank you! And in the words of the motto of the University of California, “Fiat lux,” or, “Let there be light!”