Sowing seeds of change

'Sustainable' farming and its environmental concerns get new push at UC Davis

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Sunday, June 29, 2003

While it's widely known for its biotechnology expertise, the University of California, Davis, is trying to boost the profile of its research into "sustainable" farming.

Despite looming budget cuts, officials at the university's top-ranked agriculture college say they plan a new undergraduate degree in sustainable farming and a center to synthesize related research and to generate publicity.

The proposed changes highlight the broader debate in agriculture about the proper balance between sustainable practices -those that promote long-term health of farms and the environment -and mechanical or chemical fixes to farming problems.

Government regulations and public sentiment are pushing California farmers toward taking better care of the environment, but sustainable farming research suffers from skimpy budgets and institutional neglect, according to UC Davis reports and outside critics.

"(Davis has) all the elements; in fact, we have more of the elements than anybody else has. We just haven't coordinated them and promoted them and supported them in terms of having an organizational center," said Janet Broome, associate director of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program run by the University of California.

Tensions between the different approaches to farming spilled into the streets last week in Sacramento, when more than 2,000 protesters demanded that an international farm technology conference give more attention to sustainable farming and less to manipulating genes.

One reason U.S. Department of Agriculture officials gave for holding the conference in Sacramento is its proximity to the Davis campus, arguably the most important farm school in the nation and one of the first land grant universities to incorporate environmental science into its agriculture mission.

UC Davis spends more than any other U.S. university -- more than $100 million a year -- on a wide range of agricultural research, from engineering disease-resistant crops to developing new techniques to extend the shelf life of fruit.

The campus also embodies the realities of today's agriculture research: What gets funded and promoted is based on a complex equation of social merit, farmer demands, corporate funding, patent potential and politics.

Genetic engineering has generated much publicity and money for UC Davis in recent years, but more than 150 researchers there also work on aspects of sustainability. The topic includes issues such as the diversion of farm water to urban use and the viability of rural towns.

"A college has to validate its existence by bringing in the bucks," said Broome, whose UC system program is housed at Davis but is not part of the UC Davis ag college.

"Sustainable-agriculture research is not always coming up with a patentable product, but it is more farming-system improvements that protect the environment," she said.

That's a major reason why sustainable research hasn't attracted much money in an era of reduced public spending on farm research and increasing reliance on outside money.

Richard Rominger, who was U.S. deputy secretary of agriculture under President Clinton, said California's sustainable-farming research generally is "starving for funds," a trend that is mirrored nationally.

"One of the criticisms has been that they have not moved away from the emphasis on pesticides and pest control and moved fast enough into biological controls -- looking at the whole system," said Rominger, who was tapped by California university leaders to assess the state's higher education system for agriculture.

The Santa Cruz-based Organic Farming Research Foundation is more blunt about the lack of attention paid to organic agriculture -- a subset of the sustainable movement -- at universities.

The group's 2001 report criticized universities in California -the nation's leader with more than 1,000 organic farmers and 148,000 acres of certified organic cropland -for having only nine certified organic acres. This year's update shows 39 acres in the UC system now are managed organically.

"It's an insult to a billion-dollar industry that we still don't have the kind of academic, peer-reviewed research available to use that any other business sector gets almost automatically," said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the research foundation.

UC Davis' efforts to balance sometimes conflicting demands have been made more difficult by state budget cuts that threaten to eliminate 72 of 456 full-time faculty positions at the agriculture college.

"How do we survive is the question, let alone how do you maintain this level of distinction that you have earned over a very, very long time," said college dean Neal Van Alfen.

"We should lead the effort to guide the development of sustainable agriculture into a solid academic pursuit," Van Alfen said when forming a committee last year to assess the future of sustainable agriculture at Davis.

Its report showed about 35 campus programs and projects related to the topic and recommended establishing a Center for Agricultural and Natural Resource Sustainability to raise awareness and outside money.

Van Alfen said in a recent interview that he remains committed to improving sustainable programs despite his shrinking budget, which is forcing a reorganization of the college.

"It is important to start the process, and then we can increase financial support as funds are available and the investment is justified," he said.

The college's faculty senate committee is evaluating curriculum changes that would collect agricultural, environmental and socioeconomic sciences as a cohesive major, an effort that is expected to take another year.

Van Alfen said Thursday he is inviting interest groups and the public to address the future of the college's sustainable-farming efforts at 2 p.m. July 25 in the Heidrick Western Center for Agricultural Equipment on the Davis campus.

"Other deans have talked about a commitment to sustainable agriculture but I think Neal has really stepped up the pace," said Steve Kaffka, director of Davis' 100-year farm research project since February.

Kaffka was brought in to oversee the long-term experiment that sustainable farming experts say has great potential but little fiscal support -- about $250,000 a year from the university -- and relatively little scientific interest.

The 72-acre project was set up to measure the effects of different levels of water and fertilizer on three main crops (corn, wheat and tomatoes) and on soil. First planted in 1993, the farm is used to assess the long-term trends in conventional, organic and sustainable farming.

"Some people think of us as working for farmers, but really we also serve the public's larger interest in the proper management of the agricultural landscape," Kaffka said.

About the Writer The Bee's Mike Lee can be reached at (916)321-1102 or Staff writer Lesli A. Maxwell contributed to this report.

UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences


Neal Van Alfen (since 1999). He wants to increase emphasis on sustainable ag programs.

Annual budget

$142.7 million in 2002-03. State budget cuts threaten 72 full-time faculty positions.


Opened in 1908 as the state's university farm; four-year degree program began in 1922.


4,855 undergraduates; 942 graduate students.


1,494, including faculty, cooperative extension specialists, others.

Source: UC Davis