Beachy named director of new World Food Center at UC Davis

In choosing noted plant biologist Roger Beachy to head UC Davis’ new World Food Center, Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi picked a leader with close ties to agribusiness, science and Washington, D.C.

Beachy’s selection, announced Thursday, underscores how seriously UC Davis is taking its World Food Center plans, which include the anticipated development of a $100 million endowment to unite more than 30 centers or institutes on campus that engage in research related to food, nutrition and health.

Beachy, 69, recently served in the Obama administration as the first director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a post he held from 2009 until 2011.

He begins his tenure at UC Davis on Jan. 1 and will be paid $212,000 a year for an 80 percent work schedule, said UC Davis spokesman Keith Sterling.

Beachy is well-known in the agricultural community for his support of the use of genetic modification to produce disease-resistant crops.

Raised on a small farm in Ohio in a Mennonite family, he was a biology faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis from 1979 to 1991 and served as director of the university’s Center for Plant Science and Biotechnology.

It was in the 1970s, as a scientist at Washington University, that Beachy made a first successful foray into genetic engineering. An effort with food giant Monsanto and other universities to protect the tomato plant from the tomato mosaic virus led to the creation of the world’s first genetically modified food crop.

As the first leader of the World Food Center, Beachy will likely reprise the role of creator and enabler that he undertook as the founding president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. Opened in October 2001, the center is a not-for-profit scientific facility partially funded by Monsanto. Beachy led the organization from 1999 to 2009.

Below, Beachy talks with The Bee about his plans for the food center and his stance on genetically modified organisms and other food issues.

What will be the major challenges leading a center that brings together 30 or more entities?

One of the challenges is to identify how the food center will bring value to what’s going on now. There is some great stuff going on, some good collaboration at UC Davis already. One of the new things that can be generated in having the center as an umbrella is bringing in new investors from the private sector or philanthropic donors who want to facilitate in our mission.

How would you describe that effort?

Right now, it’s amorphous. We do not yet have plans. We have the skeleton of where we want to go, but we have a lot of flesh to put on the bones. The details will involve the 30 centers in food and agriculture and sustainability. Like having a school of engineers that might help in a way that is different than the way engineering used to be involved in agriculture. This could be the use of new software and detectors and technology that will help in all areas. And we need to tie in the medical school as well as nutritionists and plant breeders and agronomists. I think the linkages are endless.

Can you talk about the budgetary challenges?

The university will help get this started with a short-term temporary financial arrangement where they will be reimbursed over time. So, they will catalyze this with a long-term loan, but then we need to bring in additional resources. A lot of my first three years here will be creating a vision for the center and telling others about it, as well as gauging who might be involved. Some of those might be philanthropic donors, some of those might want to invest their funds in entrepreneurship, which will got to university scientists and programs that we would support. Of course, we need multinational companies to invest as well.

So what’s the budget target?

The chancellor has targeted – over the next three to seven years – building a separate endowment for the center of $100 million. There will be ongoing funds that might come with collaborative partnerships with the private sector and perhaps with foundations. The kinds of funds the endowment would fund would allow for some Brookings Institute sort of ideas and brainstorming and public service kind of activity. Those would be project-driven with specific goals that would be funded by foundations or the private sector, or with federal funds.

Will Monsanto have a big presence at the center?

It’s hard to tell. The private industry – the large multinationals – have tended to invest in science that serves the very large commodity crops, like wheat, corn, soy and cotton. Those are not major crops in California. I think that the specialties that we have here – the more than 400 kinds of crops being grown – will require a different kind of investor. On the other hand, multinationals like DuPont and Monsanto seed companies, and I think that is important to California, and I hope they come and talk to us.

What do you have to say about genetically modified crops and university research?

My bias is that we need to get the knowledge that is developed at universities out into the public sector. We need to find a way that the public sees universities as the trusted source of information. The new knowledge we generate can create jobs and aid in nutrition, and it can get rid of agro-chemicals. I’ve criticized the chemical industry quite a lot. If I have a choice between chemicals and genetics, I will go with genetics every time. I come from a position that says we have a lot to gain from science. At the center, we will not favor one science or one technology over another – knowledge is what we’ll be generating.

And what about the political and public controversy over the GMO issue?

We have the safest advances in agriculture technology and these have come from genetics – and genetic modification. It’s pretty amazing, from the perspective of science and environmental safety, there are no questions about the merits of genetic modification in the minds of scientists. The issue of why the public has decided to accept the conclusions that come from nonagricultural and non-science backgrounds ... in order to make decisions – that is a something a lot of us have puzzled over the last 20 years.

Genetics offers us a fantastic opportunity to reduce the use of agricultural chemicals and the amount of food additives. This is what we all strive for. And yet, there is this red flag that goes up when someone uses the phrase “GMO.” Unless we get beyond this current barrier, we will tie the hands of innovators and scientists who really want to have a sustainable agriculture that is safe for all and the environment.