Monday Morning Thoughts: The WFC Link to Ag-Tech Innovation

As we explore possibilities regarding the World Food Center (WFC), it is worth revisiting an op-ed from last July from Josette Lewis, the Associate Director of the World Food Center at UC Davis.  “Sacramento region should lead the world in ag-tech innovation,” appeared in the Sacramento Bee on July 21, 2016.

“While shaping itself into the farm-to-fork capital, Sacramento also has the potential to be the nation’s hub of innovation for food and agriculture technology,” Josette Lewis writes.

She notes that the region has one of the highest ranked food and ag research universities in the world, UC Davis, it is connected to one of the world’s top ag economies and is in a state with the nation’s largest share of investment in food and ag startup companies.

However, “Yet with a recent leap in ag-tech investment elsewhere, this could be Sacramento’s opportunity to lose if we don’t seize the momentum.”

Last year, the food and ag-tech industry produced startups that raised $2.9 billion in private investment. “The U.S. accounted for more than half of those deals, with California supplying 31 percent. Though still a significant share, it’s a slip from 2014, when California was home to nearly half the deals,” she notes ominously.

Part of what has happened is that “the rise of incubator and accelerator initiatives in the Midwest and on the East Coast are catching up with Northern California.”  Some of that is due to drought and new regulations on the use of groundwater and targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in our food systems.

But Ms. Lewis notes, “To tackle these challenges, a triangle of innovation should be connecting our region to Silicon Valley and the Central Valley, further aligning California’s commitment to environmental sustainability with its success in delivering high-quality food.

“As a sign of the payoff from past technology investments, California today produces 85 percent more food with 15 percent less water than it did 50 years ago. Tomorrow’s farm promises even more water efficiency by connecting irrigation and fertilization systems to wireless networks and the internet of things, to enable a new level of precision and conservation in how we produce food.”

She writes, “In the world of food and agricultural science, the University of California, Davis, is well recognized as a global leader. This helps the campus draw national and international assets to the Sacramento region and its economy, which is how the World Food Center – now approaching its third year at UC Davis – is building bridges to some of the most innovative food and ag-tech investors, incubators and accelerator programs. These connections are feeding our regional startups and seeding economic growth. But more is needed.”

She trumpets, “Mayor Kevin Johnson’s new Innovation and Growth Fund is a welcome start for attracting young entrepreneurs. To realize our goal of being the tech hub for food and ag, we need to continue to draw those investors and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley and across the nation. This starts with strong regional partners, both public and private.

“To launch more companies, we need expanded angel and seed funding, incubator spaces that meet a range of technology needs and mentoring networks that guide entrepreneurs from concepts to products to market channels,” she said.  “A strong local foundation bolsters startups for drawing investment from Silicon Valley and from top strategic and venture investment groups nationally. Only a few startups make it all the way to an initial public offering or acquisition. But the numbers add up in terms of economic growth and visibility to investors and entrepreneurs outside our region.  Seizing this moment, our region can take the lead in shaping innovative technology solutions to feed the planet in healthy and sustainable ways.”

There are questions about what the World Food Center is and is not.  What is clear from Ms. Lewis’ piece from the summer is that she sees the WFC as a driver for tech-transfer and economic development.

From Davis’ standpoint, this could be the driver for economic development that brings university research together with market-based solutions for environmental sustainability and food security.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Tia Will


    To me, you left out the single most important quote from Ms. Lewis’ article:

    This means more food will need to come from fewer resources: less water, fewer chemicals and less labor-intensive practices to grow and harvest our food.”

    If indeed the production of more food, as oppsed to more”food products” with questionable nutritional value, is indeed the focus, then I would be very supportive both of the WFC and its locaion in Davis. However, she then gets into more nebulous territory.

    There are questions about what the World Food Center is and is not.  What is clear from Ms. Lewis’ piece from the summer is that she sees the WFC as a driver for tech-transfer and economic development.”

    I have not seen any clear plan for what the WFC would actually entail. Only that there are high hopes that it will spur the local and regional economy. I see these as worthy goals, but only if they are achieved in service of the overarching goal which is more efficiently produced food for those who are actually in need of more food.

    I am skeptical about this goal given the initial proposal of the Mars company as the primary partner in former Chancellor Katehi’s first iteration of the plan. Mars is not a “food comapny” but rather a “food product company” and only a fraction of their products could in any way be seen as food with nutritional value for humans. I do not support a local usage of agricultural fields to help a company such as Mars profit from more efficient manufacture and distribution of non-nutritional products.

    My bottom line is that the ends may very well not justify the means. Stimulating the local economy is desireable. Doing so through the marketing of “non food” is not any more desireable in my eyes than would be stimulating the economy by improving tobacco growth and distribution techniques.  I am not accusing anyone of anything. I would simply like to hear spelled out the current objectives and specifics of implementation for improvements in actual food production, processing and distribution prior to signing on to cheerlead for a project whose true intent I do not know.


      1. Jaroslaw Waszczuk


        Do you know how this UC Davis WFC would or will benefit global populations .? A  lot

        of talk about but  what would  my benefit if I go  to the Food For Less or Safeway or other grocery store to buy food ?

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