Feeding the Future

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Written by Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, Guest Contributor

When we talk about how to feed and nourish a world projected to add about two billion people over the next generation, we are really facing a multitude of unprecedented challenges.

If all we had to do was produce more food, the problem would be difficult enough. But we need to do so while dealing with serious restraints caused by climate change, shrinking agricultural land, drought and environmental degradation so extensive that in China – the world’s most populous nation – nearly a fifth of farmland is dangerously polluted.

Much of the world also has pressing needs for modernizing food production, storage, packaging, processing and transportation.

Meeting this signature challenge of our age will take diverse teams of experts across a variety of disciplines and specialties all working together. We will need the best, most innovative minds in the private and public sectors working more collaboratively, on a larger scale, than we have ever seen.
At the University of California, Davis – listed number one in the world for agriculture and forestry the past two years by QS World University Rankings – this is why we recently collaborated with a longtime industry partner to form the Innovation Institute for Food and Health.

When people think of Mars, Incorporated, they usually picture M&M’s and Milky Ways. But since its founding in 1911, Mars has grown into one of the largest privately owned food companies in the world. It has more than $33 billion in annual revenues and brands that sell everything from rice to pet food and chewing gum.

Mars also has a strong record in innovation and sustainability. It has been a research partner with UC Davis for nearly four decades. Together, we have worked on ground breaking research projects that have helped define nutrition requirements for pets, discover the benefits of cocoa flavanols for human health and map the genomes of Theobroma cacao (cacao) and Arachis hypogaea (peanut).  We are also collaborating to establish plant breeding centers in Africa that will enable African scientists to translate the knowledge gained from the Mars-lead effort to sequence 101 food crop genomes indigenous to Africa (the African Orphan Crops Consortium) – to develop crops with improved nutrition, yield and drought tolerance.

In creating our new Innovation Institute, the university was drawn to Mars for the breadth of its scientific research, its commitment to sustainability and its skill at translating scientific research into commercial products and applications, which is a central part of the Institute’s mission.

As Harold Schmitz, the company’s chief scientist, has written, Mars wanted to collaborate with UC Davis on the Innovation Institute for Food and Health because of our agricultural expertise and our proficiency in management, economics, law, engineering and “many other areas vital for companies such as Mars to innovate successfully.”

Interdisciplinary collaboration is a cornerstone of UC Davis research. We know that the old ways of doing research in isolated silos rarely produces the kinds of breakthroughs and innovations the world needs.

That’s why in 2010, UC Davis allocated $18 million to launch new, globally competitive large-scale interdisciplinary research projects for which we hope to attract additional outside funding. We believe these projects can lead to transformative knowledge and technologies that will aid in solving major problems facing our state, nation and the world.

So far in the RISE program — Research Investments in the Sciences and Engineering— we have funded 13 research teams involving more than 90 faculty from nine academic disciplines.

Projects that these new research teams are working on include the development of new tools to understand, monitor and overcome plant stress; technologies to quickly, efficiently and cheaply identify pathogens of plants and people based on genetic markers to streamline disease identification; and ways to strengthen plant resistance to fungal, bacterial and viral pathogens.

Another important way that land-grant universities like UC Davis have an impact on agricultural efficiency and productivity is through our Cooperative Extension programs.  Although chronically underfunded, these programs provide an amazing group of cooperative specialists who work closely with faculty in our College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences and School of Veterinary Medicine.

Working together, we help farmers in their businesses, strengthen agricultural markets, help the balance of trade, address environmental issues, promote plant health and provide farmers and consumers with research-tested techniques to enhance food safety.

To cite just one example, UC Davis researchers have worked through our extension programs to help California almond growers cut their water usage by a third in recent years.

California and the federal government need to reinvest in our Cooperative Extension programs so we can take more of our cutting-edge research and translate it from theory into practice. Also, these programs need to stay in close proximity to our outstanding Colleges of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine to provide the necessary translation of great science to the products and services that benefit our agricultural industry.

As we work to meet the tremendous food-related challenges facing our planet, we must continue to develop and implement even more of the kind of uncommon collaborations and partnerships highlighted here in order to get the job done.