Secretary Tom Vilsack Helps to Launch Refresh!

Last week, The Refresh Working Group was honored to host former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack for a fireside chat and panel discussion with working group members Don Bustos of Santa Cruz Farms, Ankita Raturi of USDA, and Ali Lange of Google. More than anything, the event illustrated the importance and value of convening a diverse group of people working across the food system.

Speaking with Food Tank President and Refresh Working Group member Danielle Nierenberg, Secretary Vilsack remarked that he liked how the Refresh report addresses the entire food system, rather than separating the agricultural and food sectors, as is so often the case. That comment resonates with one of the Refresh report’s key goals, to look at the role technology can play throughout the food system, not just in discrete parts of it. By breaking down silos among different constituencies, the report, in Vilsack’s view, offers an opportunity to bridge the divide between different sectors and opens up the possibility of a more holistic conversation about our broken food system.

The panel discussion echoed the importance of broadening the conversation on technology and food, in particular. Google’s Ali Lange asked a key question for developing new technology: “Whose problem are we solving?” By convening this group, the people involved in creating new technologies are finding common ground with the people and communities who using them. Without that conversation, Ankita Raturi from the USDA offers an important warning: “There are all these perils if we start to design technology without the participation of the different system stakeholders.”

“The people who are entrepreneurial in Silicon Valley were willing to take a risk of being wrong, were willing to take a risk of thinking that they were going to develop something and then, being willing to change direction. Farmers are the same way. They put a crop in the ground, they take enormous risk.”
–Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, at the launch of the Refresh Working Group and the Refresh Food + Tech: From Soil to Supper report

Both Secretary Vilsack and Don Bustos brought up the barriers to adoption and the multiple reasons they might be out of reach for some would-be tech users. Those concerns drive home the practical importance of bringing people together to work through these kinds of issues. Conversations like this one are necessary in order to build trust through transparency and leverage what Secretary Vilsack called the “power to convene.” In addition to the very practical concerns around utility and cost, making sure that new tools meet the real needs of end users is critical.

Don Bustos drove home that point when he reframed questions about the role AI might play in the future of the food system. He noted that it is incumbent on technology companies to engage end users and their communities in ways that “they can actually get the info, digest it, and make a real decision in technology’s ‘real time.’”

Watch and listen to the full program here:

Diana Huang
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