January 26, 2021

2020: Restructure, Reflect, and Refocus to Usher in a Brighter 2021

The commencement of a fresh decade brought with it an unprecedented array of adversity containing a fury of events from Mother Nature herself. The world spent a majority of 2020 operating under the umbrella of a novel virus that upturned normality as we knew it. Despite the numerous effects stemming from these events, Western Growers and the agriculture industry continued to advance food safety practices, research studies, data projects, and technologies.

Earlier this year, Western Growers bid adieu to Hank Giclas when he retired after a prestigious 30-year career at the helm of the former Western Growers Science & Technology department. A colossal advocate and ally of agriculture, he spearheaded numerous projects rooted in science and data. After his departure, the original Science & Technology Unit split into two separate departments—the Science Department, with De Ann Davis joining the Western Growers leadership team as the new senior vice president of science, and the Innovation Department, now led by the recently-hired vice president of innovation, Walt Duflock. The department restructuring will allow increased ability to focus on managing resources and continuing our dedication to areas of member interest.

As a company, Western Growers aspires to react swiftly to the challenges facing our members, proposing tools and solutions to some of industry’s toughest problems. Over this past year, the Science Department progressed advancements in food safety by hosting dozens of trainings on a variety of topics and creating multiple industry guidance documents. Great strides were also made in areas of food safety, sustainability, risk management and other data-centric projects.

A departmental priority in 2021 is the assessment of the proposed traceability regulation under Section 204 (d) of the Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act. Since this section would require FDA to implement traceability requirements for certain foods, we will focus on identifying the fundamentals of a workable traceability system and ensuring the perspectives of Western Growers members are voiced and considered prior the issuance of the final traceability rule.

Among some of the notable education efforts the Science Department organized were two webinar series, one on Whole Genome Sequencing and a second on Seasonality/Transition Periods. The Whole Genome Sequencing series, in partnership with 12 national trade and industry associations, compiled a lineup of top-tier speakers from academia, government and private industry. The series kicked off by exploring the basics of Whole Genome Sequencing and how this tool applies to food safety management. In later months, the topic evolved into sequencing protocols, case studies, regulatory applications and novel applications of the next generation of whole genome sequencing such as metagenomics.

Our Seasonality Series, in collaboration with the Arizona and California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements (LGMA), shared current industry efforts to prevent leafy greens outbreaks during transition periods, provided an overview of current and ongoing research into the seasonality of romaine outbreaks, gave considerations for leafy greens food safety programs and provided potential food safety evaluation tools. It is imperative that we continue to unravel the root causes of outbreaks and evaluate best practices in order to produce the safest possible product. Western Growers would like to thank all members and industry for their work and dedication to advancing food safety.

Our goal at the association is to be proactive, foreseeing potential member issues. Data offers the ability to glimpse into the future and potentially dissolve predicaments before fully formed, while also uncovering mysteries which would otherwise remain undetected. Throughout 2020, Western Growers Science launched multiple data efforts including a virtual audits system, sustainability calculator (in partnership with Supply Shift and Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops), and pre-harvest data collection platform, while also collaborating with nitrogen management groups such as the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program staff and Central Coast stakeholders. With all these data programs, the focus remains the same: turn data into information and information into insight. Although the ability of these systems is vast, they are only as powerful as the user. Adequate training is vital to the success of data implementation and management. With this in mind, the Science Department hosted an interactive training to display the Sustainability Calculator’s abilities, which you can find at the bottom of this article.

On the heels of data projects from this past year, we’ve already lined up pilot projects for 2021, where data will be vital to progressively ascertain industry solutions to existing issues. The Western Growers Science team will be working hand-in-hand with our state and Washington D.C. based government affairs teams to assure a strong and directed approach in the areas of crop protection, gene editing, sustainability and climate change. We will continue our advocacy work to promote the use of crop management tools, such as Integrated Pest Management, to allow the use of diverse, safe and effective approaches for managing diseases and pests.

Additionally, we intend to support the development of technologies and tools designed for improving the sustainability and viability of Western Growers members. For instance, gene editing technology can provide benefits such as pest protection through higher nutrient content. However, the regulatory frameworks overseeing gene-editing technologies are similarly varied. Over the next few years, the promotion of gene-editing will require a concerted approach across WG teams to assure all applications remain viable for development. We are also remaining steadfast in our pursuit to equip growers with information, tools and methods that will assist them to best document, benchmark, improve and communicate in their progresses in sustainability. Finally, as the new federal administration develops its agenda for climate change, the Science team will shepherd our members’ interests through the complex implications of both corporate and regulatory activities.

To view projects and accomplishments from this last year, webinar series such as our presentations on Whole Genome Sequencing or the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops calculator, please visit https://www.wga.com/services/sci-tech.

Join the Team!

Western Growers Science is actively seeking participants to join the 2021 Food Safety Advisory Group!

The Science Department needs your input in order to stay ahead of industry matters and develop innovative solutions. If interested in the advisory group, email us at [email protected].