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HARVESTING SOLUTIONS

The future of food is percolating at UC Davis.

WRITTEN BY STEPH RODRIGUEZ
PHOTOS BY RUDY MEYERS PHOTOGRAPHY

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David Slaughter, Smart Farm Initiative director, sits in UC Davis' HTPP (high throughput plant phenotyping)
smart machine, an example of precision farming technology designed to help farms of the future produce optimum crop yields

A convenient neighborhood grocery store provides customers with a plethora of options when it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables — whether they’re seasonal or not. As consumers, we’ve grown accustomed to (and perhaps taken for granted) the amount of direct access we have to the foods we eat. Whether they’re mounds of sun-ripened Roma tomatoes, stacks of carefully packaged strawberries, or piles of spicy green peppers, whatever our hearts desire is on display daily.

But what happens when outside factors such as climate change, labor scarcity, and a steadily growing global population start to affect the amount of food — and the endless varieties — that people are so used to purchasing by the pound on any given day of the week? What will food and its production look like in 20 years?

These are the hard questions that some of the most brilliant minds at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of California, Davis are working to answer.

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Maddison Gurrola, student research lead for UC Davis' END OF WASTE Project,
with a tray of food products created from upcycled food waste

Farm of the future

For more than 100 years, the vital research conducted on the UC Davis campus has produced everything from a tough breed of processing tomato, now known as the Roma (back in the 1940s), with its skin sturdy enough to withstand machine harvests, to the mechanical tomato harvester that launched in the late 1960s that could carefully pick the fruits without damaging them before they were packaged and shipped off for processing.

The tireless work behind the development of the Roma and its buddy, the mechanical harvester, are just two milestones of many that pepper the university’s rich past and went on to save farmers up to 90 percent in labor costs as the technology was adopted in the late ’60s and into the ’70s.

“It really is a success story of why we still have processing tomatoes in the United States. You went from no processing tomatoes harvested mechanically to 95 percent harvested. It was very dramatic,” says David Slaughter, biological and agricultural engineering professor and director of the UC Davis Smart Farm Initiative. “If this hadn’t happened, you could imagine that industry leaving the United States.”

This line of work — and its history — excites Slaughter. He says the development of the Roma tomato took about 20 years to complete due to lack of funding and the amount of biotechnology available to scientists at that time.

The Smart Farm Initiative is a program dedicated to precision farming techniques by the use of technology to ensure food-producing trees and plants yield to their optimum. As director, Slaughter and his colleagues aim to continue the university’s history of achievements by creating the farm of the future.

Slaughter imagines a time 20 years from now when autonomous machines care for crops on an individual basis, as opposed to by the acre, and can measure every detail of each plant, from the amount of sun that has been absorbed by its leaves to the precise amount of nutrients it needs or the exact amount of water found in its roots.

Some smart machines developed at UC Davis can turn on and off water nodes to prevent excessive water use, as well as take 360-degree photos of individual plants and send back any data to Slaughter’s smartphone, where he can assess why a particular plant’s leaves are yellowing under the sun. With these technologies, farmers would ideally be able to make the best decisions for an individual plant’s care so that the overall harvest is not only successful, but also as sustainable as possible.

He adds that this differs greatly from today’s farms that currently treat crops uniformly.

“They all get sprayed with the same amount of insecticide; they’re not treated as individuals. It’s a farming style that is 1,500 years old,” he says. “So this technology allows us to farm at a commercial scale with the same intimate knowledge and care you could provide in a backyard garden.”

These important details that Smart Farm researchers are working on ensure that each plant efficiently produces its best yield, which, Slaughter notes, is vital as the global population continues to grow and other factors such as climate change threaten the growing conditions for food-producing farms.

“About a quarter of the world’s population is food insecure. By the year 2050, the United Nations projects we’ll have food shortages on the order of 70 percent. So we won’t have a food shortage particularly in the United States, but on a worldwide basis,” Slaughter says. “If we could address the needs of these individual crops in a way that would allow them to produce to their optimum [levels], we don’t necessarily need to bring more farmland into production to address the needs of food insecurity and the population growth that we’ll see.”

Slaughter’s vision for the farm of the future incorporates everything from unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to co-robots that work alongside human laborers picking strawberries — providing the workers with new trays on which to pile the berries while also weighing the day’s harvest, then driving the haul to the fields’ edges, where they’re then loaded onto trucks.

“In the future, we imagine using things like UAVs that will be able to fly through on a daily or weekly basis and be able to look at things on a plant-by-plant or animal-by-animal basis,” Slaughter says. “Technology allows you to farm in a different way, and sensor technology allows you to understand the needs on an individual basis … All of these technologies are coming into play to allow us to do things in a different way and address these grand challenges in agriculture. Labor is one of them.”

Additional smart farm technologies include the weeding robot developed at UC Davis, an autonomous machine that relies on GPS technology to measure the latitude and longitude of a seedling’s location on a farm, then mechanically weeds the areas in between each plant. This technology has the potential to save farmers 50 percent in labor costs; according to Slaughter, weeds are responsible for some of the largest losses in agriculture.

At the same time, machines such as these can ease the fieldworkers’ often backbreaking efforts when it comes to weeding or hauling pounds and pounds of fruit from one point out in the field to another.

“As a society, should we be manually harvesting tomatoes? Should you be climbing up a ladder with 70 pounds of citrus in a bag strapped to your neck?” Slaughter asks. “We have to carefully examine a lot of these issues, as well as how we’re going to feed this population if we don’t take some action. Smart Farm is trying to take a holistic approach where we’re not just creating a benefit for one segment of agriculture but the entire agricultural system, starting with the farm laborer and going all the way to the farmer.”

Upcycle, reduce, reuse

In the 1990s, Recycle Rex, CalRecycle’s “spokesdinosaur,” reminded children around California to respect the land and keep it clean. Rex’s catchy jingle may now be extinct, but efforts to make use of food waste aren’t — at least not for Edward Spang, assistant professor in the Food Science and Technology department at UC Davis, or for his student research lead, Maddison Gurrola.

In 2017, a team of students, faculty members, and industry partners collaborated on the Enabling Novel Designs for Organic Food Waste Abatement by Student Technologists and Entrepreneurs, or END OF WASTE, Project.

The research group aimed to upcycle food waste — such as the pulp, or pomace, left over from fruits, vegetables, or nuts after making a batch of cold-pressed juice or almond milk — by transforming it into edible bites that are vegan, low glycemic, and also come with a boost of protein.

Inside the innovation lab, a test kitchen on campus, Gurrola (who also created the original recipes) and other students explored a broad range of ideas and, eventually, in March 2017, developed three products on which to focus their efforts. They then spent the spring refining them and creating a business plan for one, the Mocha Bite, to enter into the annual Big Bang Business Competition held on campus. The group won and was awarded $10,000 to continue its research.

Since then, the Mocha Bite has evolved from a small, truffle-looking, round bite of food into a bar shape; each is comprised of 42 percent upcycled food materials.

“Last year, we were sourcing a number of different pulps just to try to invent new products, and this year we’ve been focusing more on reformulating and improving the Mocha Bite and even considering different business models to bring that product to market,” Spang says.

Gurrola says if the team were to sell 5 million units of 40-gram servings, it would divert about 270 tons of waste from landfills or composts, instead giving it a second life by upcycling the material into something delicious that everyone can enjoy.

“In the last year and a half, we’ve seen a lot of activity in this marketplace,” Spang says. “There’s been more talk about upcycled food; we’ve learned that upcycling is a new kind of trend in the food-business area.”

At the time of this writing, the END OF WASTE Project team was looking for a new facility in which to source almond pomace — one of the main ingredients in Mocha Bites — such as a factory that makes almond milk for the masses. Another key ingredient is coffee cherry flour, which usually ends up on the cutting-room floor after coffee beans are processed.

Members of the public were lucky enough to taste the END OF WASTE Project’s original recipe at the Exploratorium’s After Dark: Eating Well exhibit and then again at the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco this past January.

“We received a hugely positive response, and people are really receptive and really excited, especially once they’ve tried the product and realized it’s not something gross,” Gurrola says of the Mocha Bites. “They get really excited about eating it, and when you’re having conversations with average consumers about how their food choices really affect the environment, they’re more excited about it. They’re more open to it. And they enjoy eating it. It’s been cool to be on that cutting edge.”

At the time of this writing, Gurrola was working on new flavors such as matcha, peanut butter chocolate, and mint coconut, and she was looking forward to conducting more outreach at conferences, such as The U.S. Food Waste Summit at Harvard Law School in June.

The ultimate goal for the END OF WASTE Project is to push these upcycled bites into health-conscious stores, including local co-ops, Whole Foods Markets, and Nugget Markets. Spang says depending on the way conversations go in the coming months, people just might see this product on shelves.

“Sustainability in our food system is really important, and finding creative solutions — specifically, taking products people normally are kind of put off by and making them into something delicious that people crave — is really exciting,” Gurrola says.

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Matthew Lange, food and health research scientist at UC Davis, stands in front of the interface for the Internet of Food

Eat smarter

Imagine if people had as much access to food information as they do varieties of vegetables in a grocery store. Visualize walking down the soup aisle, picking up a beloved brand, and using a smartphone to scan the QR code on the back of the can. What information would it divulge? The possibilities are vast, and Matthew Lange, a food and health research scientist at UC Davis, says this technology isn’t far from becoming reality.

“Instead of having everything that you can fit on a tiny paper label, [you’d have] a virtual label where I can tell you where the chickens in that can of soup came from, where the flour for the noodles came from, where the carrots came from,” Lange says. “Now you can begin to have a better understanding of where your food’s coming from.”

He goes on to describe a world where food is so traceable that if and when outbreaks of food poisoning occur — such as the recent issue of contaminated romaine lettuce — tracing them back to the fields from which they came would be possible in a matter of seconds as opposed to weeks. Lange currently is working to engineer such a computable infrastructure, which he’s calling the Internet of Food.

“It’s not a database. It’s not a website. It’s not the Internet of Things ... This is a whole new iInternet,” Lange explains. “The Internet of Food doesn’t exist yet; we’re still in the process of building this language. The idea is that there will be web interfaces, there will be app interfaces, [and] there will be robotic interfaces.”

To first understand what will become the Internet of Food (IoF), one must understand the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT is a network or internet highway that connects physical devices with built-in smart technologies, such as a car with OnStar, a home appliance (such as your refrigerator) that’s linked to a person’s Amazon Prime account, or even other electronics such as sensors, thermostats, and more that all have connectivity capabilities allowing them to exchange data.

The Internet of Food will include IoT to some degree, but it also will be an evolving global base of food knowledge that exists for purveyors, farmers, and consumers alike to add to and help feed the growing need for food transparency.

Although the infrastructure still is being developed, the IoF components will eventually allow anyone on the Internet to contribute what they know about food and, more importantly, find answers to an abundance of questions, such as, “Are there food allergens in this bag of apple crisps?”

“To make it easy for people to understand, I talk about a potential markup language for food,” Lange says. “That’s the idea that instead of marking up text for bold or italic fonts, we can mark up food for the condition under which it’s grown; the variety of strawberry that it is; the post-harvest treatment that happened to the cacao before it was turned into chocolate; whether it was sliced, diced, chopped, canned, peeled, delivered at an X temperature … all at a standard language that food operators, purveyors, distributors, producers, and farmers can read and understand and compete over.”

With the IoF on the horizon, Lange says people will start to see greater traceability of food; more transparency among farmers, purveyors, and producers; and increasing trust between the consumer and those handling and growing their food.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a singular launch; it’s going to start popping up in different companies that start embracing these things,” Lange explains.

A sustainable future

For Helene Dillard, dean of UC Davis’ College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, every time she observes the research and projects that faculty and students are meticulously working on, she experiences a real wow moment.

“I think what I really love is that people are working in these teams. They aren’t individual efforts. When you have a place like UC Davis, you can put together an engineer, a plant scientist, and a soil scientist with somebody who looks at air quality, and you can really look at the production of a plant and the food that comes from that plant from all different angles,” Dillard says. “We’ve got drones, all kinds of electronics, and people controlling things from their cellphones. I think that’s really the future of food, and that’s going to create the efficiencies that we need to be sustainable and produce enough food for the planet.”

In addition to her life’s work as a plant pathology professor at Cornell University, where her research explored the biology, ecology, and management of fungal pathogens that cause diseases in vegetable crops, Dillard also is a well-traveled academic with national and international leadership experience that includes presentations in South America, the European Union, Central America, and more.

Although Dillard’s traveled the globe and educated the masses on sustainable agriculture and plant health, she says there’s no institution in the world quite like UC Davis because each department on campus is equally important when it comes to developing the technology and practices that will propel not only the farm of the future, but also the future of food.

“I think the future for food is bright, and, in many ways, it’s a requirement that we [as humans] have to meet if we want to be on this planet,” Dillard says. “I think we’re heading in the right direction, and our students and professors are working really hard at it. Our farmers are doing better than ever in terms of efficiency, and I think our researchers [at UC Davis] are really on it in terms of prioritizing what kinds of things to work on that would be helpful.”

Steph Rodriguez is an award-winning freelance journalist who keeps a close eye on the food and music scene in Sacramento. With more than 10 years’ experience as a writer, she crafts stories that mirror the vast and diverse culture of the region. From entertainment and lifestyle features, to profiles with a farm-to-fork interest, she aims to capture the simplicity of Sacramento peppered with delicious moments.

Resources

For details about the END OF WASTE project’s Mocha Bites, the additional flavors, and when they’ll hit store shelves, visit Renew-foods.com or find the project on Instagram @Endofwaste.

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