Viewpoints: Cutting-edge research can feed the world

In 1906, the same year the great San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed much of the city, California made a momentous decision that continues to pay dividends for our state and world.

Choosing among more than 70 competing sites, officials decided to build a new University Farm on a dusty patch of dirt across the Sacramento River from the state capital. Davisville, as it was known then, was a remote outpost with about 25 homes, a few small businesses and no identity. The plan was to create a small campus farm so students interested in agriculture could get firsthand knowledge and experience to help California feed and nourish its growing population.

Since that time, UC Davis has become one of the world’s premier public research universities and the top-ranked agricultural school in the world. Along the way, we have been deeply involved in the evolution of California’s dynamic, $45 billion-a-year agricultural economy, exerting a huge influence on how crops are grown, fertilized, watered and protected against disease as that economy prospered.

Given our pedigree, we could not be more proud to be part of the University of California Global Food Initiative announced earlier this month by UC President Janet Napolitano. Her vision provides even more momentum and focus to our core specialty, exemplified by the World Food Center at UC Davis, established a little more than a year ago. In its first major effort, the center signed an agreement Wednesday to work with scientists in China to improve food safety.

A primary motivation in creating the center was to help leverage the impact of our cutting-edge research by convening innovators and leaders from industry, academic, government and nongovernmental organizations to tackle food-related challenges in California and around the world. Along with the other nine UC campuses participating in the Global Food Initiative, this combination gives California an unmatched arsenal to address what Napolitano correctly identified as one of the most critical issues of our time: sustainably feeding and nourishing a world population expected to top 8 billion by 2025.

At UC Davis, we are using our world-class research in agriculture to contribute to global food security in a variety of ways, including breakthroughs in plant breeding to combat the threat of a new wheat disease, plus an unprecedented number of partnerships with the federal development assistance agency, USAID. We’re applying innovations in horticulture, poultry, economics, delivery of extension services, and crop science to the needs of small farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Ensuring the bounty of our food system also contributes to improved health, we are deeply committed to improving nutrition through research and engagement with communities both at home and abroad. Childhood obesity rates have tripled in the last 30 years, with low-income families at even higher risk. By understanding the economic and distribution challenges of integrating more fresh produce into school lunch programs and developing nutrition and education interventions that assist Latinos in the San Joaquin Valley, we are committed to partnering with communities to identify practical solutions.

At the heart of our excellence across the wide spectrum of food-related disciplines is our top-ranked College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. But major contributions in food research at UC Davis also span the Colleges of Biological Sciences and Engineering in fundamental sciences; the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing and the Schools of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine on health; the Graduate School of Management on agriculture and food industry; the College of Letters and Science on social, cultural, and historical aspects of food; and the School of Law on labor and legal dimensions.

We have more than 400 faculty focused on food issues and 6,000 undergraduate and 1,000 graduate students enrolled in agriculture, ecology and food-related degree programs. Our Davis campus also manages more than 3,000 acres of land devoted to agricultural research and teaching facilities. Research, education and outreach efforts at UC Davis span the continuum from local to the global.

The Global Food Initiative plays to UC Davis’ most noteworthy strengths and our core expertise. Like the faculty on our campus whose careers are devoted to this important work, the initiative is a vital resource that promises to have a tremendous positive impact on how the world feeds and nourishes itself.