Tim Hearden/For the Capital Press
SACRAMENTO — Agriculture has always led the world in developing technology and is now in a “renaissance” driven by opportunities in automation, media magnate and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes told an audience.
High technology’s budding romance with farming is still “in its infancy” and is sure to blossom in future years with advances in irrigation systems, data-analyzing software and robotics, Forbes said during a Dec. 6 speech at the annual Almond Conference.
The advances will help farms not only feed a growing world population, but also continue to offer the food choices demanded by an expanding middle class, he said.
“Agriculture has had a fantastic history when it comes to technology,” Forbes said, noting the industry has driven inventions ranging from tractors and harvesters to genetically modified foods. “But now it’s experiencing a renaissance like never before.”
Forbes, the editor-in-chief of the Forbes media company who ran unsuccessfully in the 1996 and 2000 Republican presidential primaries, has been using his media platform to drive awareness and networking in the ag-tech sector.
For several years, he has worked to match innovators from the Silicon Valley with those in the Salinas and Central valleys, conference organizers noted. His company organizes an annual Ag Tech Summit in Salinas, bringing together professionals from the two backgrounds.
Some of the most important advances aren’t from new inventions but are from new applications of existing tools, he said. For example, the mainframe computer was invented after World War II, but decades later Walmart founder Sam Walton realized he could use computers to “manage inventory better than the big guys in the supply chain,” Forbes said.
Today robots are picking lettuce in Japan, and scientists at the University of California-Santa Cruz discovered almost accidentally that they could boost solar power and production in greenhouses by applying a transparent red dye to the outside, he said.
Many people still think of agriculture as backward “even though ag has been at the front of technological advances for 1,000 years,” Forbes said. “The image has got to catch up to reality.”
Forbes noted the technological breakthroughs in Israel. While the country’s population has grown tenfold since it was founded in 1948, its agricultural output is 16 times what it was in the beginning and its industrial output it 50 times larger, he said.
The reason is its government has removed barriers to innovation, he said. For instance, desalination plants in Israel take three or four years to build, while the one in Carlsbad, Calif., took about 15 years to plan and build and was more costly, he said.
“There is no real water crisis,” Forbes said. “Water shortage doesn’t come from droughts but ... from stupid politics.”
Forbes encouraged conference-goers to remain engaged with Congress on such issues as tax policy, health care reform, immigration and especially trade.
The North American Free Trade Agreement needs to be updated, “but the worst thing that could happen is if they blow the thing up,” he said. Otherwise, other nations will be eager to seize the U.S. market share, as Brazil did in the early 1970s when then-President Richard Nixon curbed soybean exports to reduce domestic prices, Forbes said.
Today the global marketplace is “an ecosystem,” he said.
“Your hand-held has parts in it from all over the world,” he said.