The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation
Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian Beanie Illustration

New Perspectives
on Invention and Innovation

Food for Tomorrow

November 5-6, 2010
at the National Museum of American History


First Course

In the Field: Producing Food for Tomorrow
Saturday, November 6, 2010

  • Steven Craig, Virginia Cobia Farms
  • Jane Silverthorne, National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research Program
  • Brian Halweil, Worldwatch Institute
  • Moderator: Carolyn de la Pena, University of California at Davis

What are the roles of science, technology, and ethics in the production of food for the future? What do we need to understand about genomics and GMOs? What place does culture have in food production? In this panel, Steven Craig, Jane Silverthorne, and Brian Halweil addressed change, innovation, invention, and sustainability in the production of food for the future.

Steven CraigSteven Craig, Virginia Cobia Farms

Steven Craig sees his work with Virginia Cobia Farms, a small startup company, as a response to consumers' increasing interest in knowing where their food comes from and how it is produced. Sustainable fish farms like Virginia Cobia are part of the "blue revolution" of aquaculture, Craig noted. "In the U.S.," he argued, "certainly our self-sufficiency is declining fairly rapidly. About 80 to 86 percent of our seafood is imported and this continues to grow. We have many problems with imported seafood in terms of food safety, different cultural practices, and environmental degradation in developing countries, and we feel like a domestic aquaculture industry would go a long way to solving a lot of these problems. And we certainly feel that the time is right with technology and economies a scale that we can compete and develop this domestic industry."

Virginia Cobia Farms' land-based recirculating aquaculture systems offer advantages over offshore fish farms, Craig explained. They don't have to be located on high-cost coastal land, the fishes' environment can be precisely monitored, and it is easier to control disease in these closed systems. And he asserted that inland fish farms make good economic sense. "We can grow these fish inland and transport them to the interior of the United States usually within a day by truck versus seven to ten days" from an offshore farm. "So, it’s a fresher product, lower carbon footprint, and, we think, a much healthier product."

Watch the video of Craig's complete talk »

Jane SilverthorneJane Silverthorne, National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research Program

Jane Silverthorne manages the NSF Plant Genome Research Program, which was started in 1998 as part of a larger coordinated federal program known as the National Plant Genome Initiative. In her presentation, Silverthorne discussed some of the Plant Genome Research Program's basic principles and goals, and talked about some of the foods and technologies that are coming out of that research.

She first described the differences between traditional plant breeding and breeding on the gene level, explaining that the latter is more precise and offers the ability to monitor results more closely. Manipulating plants' genomes have led to the growth of disease, insect, herbicide resistant crops. In addition, she told the audience, "Some of the newer traits that are being produced are really to benefit the consumer. These include fruits and vegetables with improved flavor and storage properties and plants with enhanced nutrition." She went on to provide an example of these benefits, stating, "Tomatoes today don't taste like the tomatoes that you had when you were a kid and they don't often taste like the tomatoes that you were growing at home in your backyard and that's because a lot of the compounds that make tomatoes taste good have been lost during selection for production traits. So we have been funding research into the flavor components with the idea that we can breed them back into our current varieties."

Watch the video of Silverthorne's complete talk »

Brian HalweilBrian Halweil, Worldwatch Institute

Brian Halweil began his talk with a twist on the food chain. "Like coffee and cocoa and other luxury crops, cashews are produced primarily in tropical nations, but eaten almost exclusively in America and in Europe. Now, about half the world's cashews are produced in Africa, but you wouldn't know this when you pick up a bag of cashews at your local grocer because virtually all those cashews that are grown in Africa are first shipped to India for processing and packaging, and then to the United States or Europe.

"That shipping of African-grown cashews to India for processing represents tens and hundreds of millions of dollars of lost income and lost revenue for those African nations. Fortunately, prompted largely by farmers' groups in those cashew-producing countries, African governments are beginning to invest in the same sorts of processing infrastructure that we now see in India and exploring local, regional, and global markets for cashews, for cashew butter, for cashew milk, and all the other sorts of cashew products that are increasingly popular and that are finding large and growing markets in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, and even in those same African producing countries."

He used this example to suggest three major changes to the way we grow, distribute, and eat food. "One, our food is going to be more local, at least a lot more local than it is now. Two, we will depend on not just producing more food, but on reducing the amount of food waste in the chain already. Three, farmers and people in the food business will be increasingly on the front lines of global and environmental challenges, particularly climate change."

Watch the video of Halweil's complete talk »

And what did the audience have to say? Watch the video of the discussion »

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