Fred Wilkinson, managing editor
Fred Wilkinson, managing editor

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Sometimes living in the modern world can feel like we’re all part of a mad science experiment.

I have a hunch I was not alone in that feeling after sitting in on the “Embracing Disruptive Technology” workshop during the recent Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit.

“One person’s solution is another person’s problem,” said PMA chief science officer Bob Whitaker, setting the stage for panelist Jack Uldrich to tell attendees how several technologies are poised to radically alter food and agriculture.

According to Uldrich, a futurist and trend spotter who bills himself as chief unlearning officer at The School of Unlearning, Minneapolis, these emerging technologies are ones to watch.

Nanotechnology: Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular and supramolecular scale for the fabrication of products.

Sounds awesome, huh?

Not sure what it means exactly?

A produce-relevant application would be packaging with antimicrobial properties or that changes colors to let consumers know when the product’s shelf life has run out.

In the field, nano filters could be used to remove phosphorous or other substances from irrigation water.

Even more intriguing — especially in drought-stricken California — is the potential use of nano filters for water desalinization, Uldrich said.

Robotics: With labor an almost constant concern for produce companies, replacing ag laborers with automation that doesn’t have immigration-status issues or threaten to unionize has obvious appeal.

Uldrich also mentioned the use of unmanned aerial vehicles — aka drones — performing tasks in the fields, including pollinating some crops in place of bees.

Panelist Joe Pezzini, chief operating officer of Ocean Mist Farms, said automated lettuce harvesting technology already has reduced the need for labor.

Computational power: The speed at which data can be collected and analyzed increases at an ever faster rate, Uldrich said. Soon to join that is using nano and/or biotech to embed uniquely identifiable computing devices into plants to allow access to more data about every stage and aspect of crop production.

Along with the cost savings and productivity gains these technologies will bring, legal and ethical questions will arise.

Uldrich spoke about the potential genetically modified produce has to revolutionize agriculture and nutrition — if the public can be convinced it’s safe for health and the environment.

As food and ag businesses collect more and more data to help maximize use of inputs and yields, which party owns the data collected — the grower who owns the fields or the company collecting and analyzing the data — could become a legal issue.

Panelist Roger Royse, a Palo Alto-based attorney whose firm works with tech start-ups, said that despite the public perception of ag as not being at the leading edge of technology, it remains fertile ground for innovation.

“Farmers are the original innovators,” he said.

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