The fate of the world’s food supply, the relationship of food to health, and the role of venture capital in farming were among a slate of issues tackled by noted national scientists and others during the official launch of the Innovation Institute for Food and Health at UC Davis on Wednesday.
The center is a partnership between the university and Mars Inc., and signals a deepening of a 40-year relationship between the two.
The institute is destined to operate under the umbrella of UC Davis’ planned World Food Center, which the university has said it wants to establish in Sacramento, possibly in the downtown railyard.
Wednesday’s event at the Mondavi Center was the first held by the innovation institute, which will be funded with $40 million from Mars, the company best known as the maker of Snickers and M&Ms. UC Davis will contribute $20 million.
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“This will be a research-based relationship, but there is another element to it. It will also be an innovation-based relationship,” said Harold Schmitz, chief science officer at Mars Inc.
In participating, Mars hopes to find a sustainable business model it can use in the long term for its food operations – especially its growing pet food operation.
For UC Davis, the institute is being seen as a Silicon Valley-like center where startups and innovative research will be created within the food realm.
Mars will not be the only company involved in the center. Other companies, universities and entities will eventually be brought into the fold, said Linda P.B. Katehi, chancellor of UC Davis.
“A number of faculty have already started collaboration work with other companies, and we will invite them to participate,” Katehi said. She did not specify which companies are involved, or what research might be included.
The broad-based approach the institute seeks to take in tackling food issues was evident in the wide-ranging and powerhouse roster of speakers invited to the symposia.
One of those was molecular biologist and Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, who spoke about how education and genetics affect health. Blackburn won a Nobel prize in medicine in 2009 for her research into how chromosomes are protected by shoelace cap-like end pieces called telomeres.
Blackburn related a key study of 100,000 Californians that found those who did not finish high school had shorter telomeres, a phenomenon correlated with the onset of disease, like cancer.
Blackburn said that an innovation institute could allow such research to get into the hands of those who can use it for the public good.
“Communication is absolutely the key thing,” Blackburn said. “Scientists are skeptical of other areas of science. There’s a lot of mutual mistrust.”
Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, also attended. “I believe this is a watershed moment for food and health” she said. “At the end of the day, nutrition education is an important foundation for helping our youth learn lifelong habits and this is the kind of thing that should happen in this region.”
Climate change and its effect on food security was also a topic of discussion.
“We’re at a tipping point where we’ve seen warning signals. We can no longer plead ignorance, we’re no longer bystanders,” said Benjamin Santer, atmospheric scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “So, I hope this new institute can do a better job of communicating the science of climate change.”
Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.