January/February 2022

Innovating out of the food crisis
By Vonnie Estes, International Fresh Produce Association

For much of the globe, we have less of a food crisis and more of a nutrition and health crisis. In the U.S., many more Americans are sick than are healthy, and the top driver is our food.

With the significant financial expenses and impacts in quality of life associated with complications of diabetes and heart disease, consumers and policy makers alike need to know what the produce industry already knows: it would make more sense to invest in healthy food like produce in the first place. My appearance at CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) in early January was to speak about how innovation in the produce industry is making healthy, nutritious food more available while being more sustainable and adapting to climate change.   

Over the past century, technology developed for traditional farming often increased emissions. Fossil fuel use by the food system, including fuel for tractors and transport and energy for fertilizer production, accounts for more than 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions.  

These trends can be reversed by deploying new technologies in different ways.  Changes in farming and soil management practices can bring up to two-thirds of all carbon lost from soils back underground, potentially drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide. These practices are considered regenerative agriculture, farming practices that reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity — resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle. The key to regenerative agriculture is that it not only “does no harm” to the land but improves it. Regenerative agriculture leads to healthy soil, capable of producing high quality, nutrient dense food while simultaneously improving, rather than degrading land, and ultimately leading to productive farms and healthy communities and economies.  

There are additional more specific technologies that are improving our food system. These include indoor farming, biological pest control and new breeding technologies. 

Indoor farming 

The agriculture industry needs to adapt to use less water and chemicals, make crops less vulnerable to changes in the climate, and produce more reliable yields. Part of the answer may lie in the emerging start-ups growing produce in indoor environments, where growing conditions can be better managed. Indoor vertical farming can increase crop yields, overcome limited land area, and even reduce farming’s impact on the environment by cutting down distance traveled in the supply chain.  

Biological controls 

Another area of innovation is biological crop protection products, also called “biologicals.” These products represent a broad category of plant protection products that are derived from living organisms not chemicals. Growers use biologicals to complement chemical products in an integrated pest management (IPM) program, or as standalone method, for protecting plants from disease, insect pests and competition from weeds. Biologicals and biostimulants can aid in better yields or enhanced crop protection. Their success is tied to the development and deployment of high-tech, more precise applicators like UAVs, robotics, and other variable rate technologies.  

Plant breeding 

New plant breeding tools like genome editing and CRISPR allow the industry to adapt to climate change more quickly. These tools help plant breeders make quicker improvements for a changing environment. With climate change we are going to need drought tolerance, changing heat and cool adaptation and resistance to new pests. We need to make these changes quickly with new breeding tools to continue to grow sustainably. 

Our food systems are global and universal, impacting everyone. Our goal in being in places like CES is to help people understand what problems need to be solved in growing more nutritious foods with less impact. With that understanding, they can help bring needed technology to the produce industry for healthier people and a healthier planet.

Vonnie-Estes-Produce-Marketing-Association— Vonnie Estes is the vice president of innovation for the new International Fresh Produce Association, which was formed when the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) and United Fresh Produce Association merged to form a new organization on Jan. 1, 2022. She formerly was the vice president of technology for PMA.

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