NSF Grant Will Fund Food and Tech Study

Drone monitoring field
Drones monitoring crops are part of the agro-tech revolution.

Technological innovation is transforming agriculture and a UC study funded by a $492,000 grant from the National Science Foundation will explore the booming connections between new technologies, agriculture and food. Charlotte Biltekoff, associate professor and chair of the UC Davis College of Letters and Science’s American studies program, is part of the multi-campus study team.

Charlote Biltekoff, American studies UC Davis
Charlotte Biltekoff

“We’ve been watching major interventions and disruptions of the conventional food industry,” said Biltekoff, who is also an associate professor of food science and technology. “There are many innovation technologies coming out and turning things upside down across the food and ag landscape.”

This includes such wide-ranging developments as using drones to monitor crops, growing meat in labs, and synthesizing proteins to create products like vegan shrimp, gelatin and shark fin. Many of these developments have not yet been comprehensively examined in context, Biltekoff said.

The study will examine how the California "agro-food tech sector” operates, especially as it responds to the demands of meeting global food needs alongside rapid population growth, climate change and other challenges. The San Francisco Bay Area is the hub of this sector, where tech innovators, venture capitalists, university scientists and philanthropists are joining forces to address some of the biggest challenges of agriculture and food production.

“We will be looking at the issues interdisciplinarily, using many approaches across the social sciences and humanities,” Biltekoff said. “This can take the field of food studies in new directions.”

“We all came to this separately and bring together a wide range of interests about agriculture, food and food consumption,” she added. “This is about working and thinking together about the new technologies themselves and how they are deployed in the service of the future of food.”

Goals of the project include:

  • Constructing a database of existing and pipeline technologies.
  • Producing a social network analysis of influences and connections.
  • Observing the self-representations of the agro-tech sector and individual products at industry trade meetings and other events.
  • Interviewing entrepreneurs, collaborating scientists and funders.

The principal investigator for the project is Julie Guthman, professor of social sciences at UC Santa Cruz. Also taking part are Madeleine Fairbairn, assistant professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz, and Kathryn De Master, assistant professor of agriculture, society and the environment at UC Berkeley.

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the College of Letters and Science

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