Teaching Us How To Eat

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With the opening this fall of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, UC Davis takes another step toward becoming a national leader in the
sustainable-food movement.

Amber Ma wants to change the future of food.

A 20-year-old senior at UC Davis, Ma is taking as many classes related to sustainable agriculture as possible. In her spare time, she gets her hands dirty at the university’s Student Farm, which has almost 20 acres of certified organic land under cultivation.

As an intern on the farm, Ma teaches local elementary school students the basics of planting, watering and fertilizing vegetables and herbs, then shows them how to put together a nutritious salad straight from the garden.

“Davis is a really good place to study sustainable agriculture because they practice what they preach,” she says. Her goal after graduation is to work in community outreach, teaching the public about how to eat in a more sustainable way—just as her UC Davis professors have taught her.

She’s certainly at the right place. The University of California at Davis is perhaps the nation’s leading academic institution in the growing sustainability movement. Its teachers and researchers are leading the way in showing the rest of the world how to eat better: more healthfully and humanely, using fewer of the Earth’s limited resources and with fewer harmful effects.

It’s too late for Ma, who’s majoring in agricultural management, to officially change her major to sustainable agriculture and food systems, a new major that debuted at UC Davis this fall. (It’s still awaiting formal approval from the university.) Meanwhile, new courses related to sustainable agriculture are popping up all over campus. A class called Food Systems, which looks at the politics of food and agriculture, is offered through the human and community development department, and the American studies department recently introduced a food concentration for its majors.

Inside the Robert Mondavi Institute

The most visible sign of UC Davis’ commitment to the sustainable-food movement: an impressive new cluster of buildings, just off Interstate 80, that’s home to the much-anticipated Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, a multimillion-dollar center designed to be the public face of the university’s cutting-edge research related to wine and food. The institute, which opened its doors in October, will host lectures and demonstrations by faculty members and sponsor events to translate for the community the research published by its professors in leading (and dry) academic journals.

One of the complex’s buildings has a state-of-the-art sensory theater for consumer-oriented food demonstrations, lectures and taste tests of products such as wine, beer, chocolate, olive oil and heirloom tomatoes.

The three-building complex also serves as headquarters for two of UC Davis’ top academic departments: food science and technology (which offers the only food science doctoral program in California), and viticulture and enology.

The viticulture and enology department is one of the university’s main claims to fame. Graduates of the program go on to become leading winemakers in vineyards throughout California, and others are national and international leaders in the field. Dr. Andy Waterhouse, the department’s chair, has photos of former students posing by stained wine barrels or in fields of grapes hanging on his office “wall of fame.”

In the spirit of sustainability that permeates the campus, Waterhouse recently was trying to trap a field mouse that was wreaking havoc in his new office at the Robert Mondavi Institute. As he unpacked boxes, he tried to lure the noisy critter into a humane mousetrap so that it could be turned loose outside.

“This is what happens when you take over a field,” he said, carefully moving a small wine refrigerator to check the bait—a square of chocolate—for telltale nibbles. “You end up with a few displaced residents.”

Construction of the Robert Mondavi Institute may have forced a few mice to move, but the payoff should be worth a certain amount of rodent relocation: using cutting-edge research to help educate consumers how to eat more healthfully and contribute to a greener world. Some of the projects on tap: planting 12 acres of wine grapes in a vineyard adjacent to the new buildings; brewing beer from scratch in a campus brew house currently under construction; perfecting the UC Davis brand of olive oil; and growing herbs and vegetables in dozens of courtyard plots. (Some will be used in teaching events sponsored by the institute; others will be donated to the UC Davis Coffee House or sold at local farmers markets.)

Producing the Next Generation of Leaders

In addition to the striking Robert Mondavi Institute, UC Davis is home to several other, less flashy institutes just as dedicated to teaching consumers about food and a new generation of farmers about sustainability.

Drive west from the main campus and you’ll pass through fields of plum and peach trees, grapevines, corn and beans. Eventually, you come to a building that houses the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program and the Agricultural Sustainability Institute, which includes more than 150 faculty members representing multiple disciplines from throughout the campus. They all share one interest: sustainable agriculture.

“We want to produce the next generation of leaders in sustainable agriculture and food systems,” says Tom Tomich, who directs both programs. “Some of our students will end up going back to the farm, and others will come to us from the inner city and end up in politics.”

Tomich’s interest in sustainability lies in the production side of things and the resulting environmental and social impacts.

A passionate sustainability advocate, he came to UC Davis in 2006 after living and working in Kenya, where he was global coordinator of the Partnership for the Tropical Forest Margins at the World Agroforestry Centre. He talks about the “kitchen sink of sustainability” because so many hot topics are related to a sustainable planet, including food safety, the economics of food, climate change, the quality of life in rural areas, animal welfare and water conservation.

Under Tomich’s direction, researchers are working to develop consumer-friendly information for grocery stores, so that a shopper can process these complex issues and apply that knowledge to buying decisions: whether to purchase organic food or hormone-free milk, for example.

One of Tomich’s jobs is to bring international sustainability experts to campus. Last year, the Agricultural Sustainability Institute hosted a roundtable with leaders of the sustainability movement from around the world. They came to Davis to share the latest research about things like embedding microchips in food packaging to give consumers more accurate information about their journey from farm to fork.

“I worry about sustainability becoming a fad,” says Tomich. “It’s urgent to get the hard science done and get it translated into a useful form so people have the information they need to make the right choices.”

Real-World Research

Gail Feenstra, a food-systems expert who works under Tomich, believes the recent surge of interest in food science, nutrition and agricultural development points to more than a passing trend, one that has been fueled by books such as Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma and movies such as Super Size Me.

From her office at the Agricultural Sustainability Institute (decorated with a poster that reads “Give Peas a Chance”), Feenstra studies the “carbon footprint” of food. She’s trying to discover how much energy goes into producing certain foods, and how much their production and transportation to market affects the environment. Ultimately, she hopes her research will help consumers standing in a grocery store decide what to eat.

When she started researching food systems 18 years ago, Feenstra says, few people were interested in the subject. Now, hundreds of students like Ma flood the campus every year, taking classes and getting involved in a community that is increasingly interested in understanding the vocabulary of sustainability.

“People are starting to ask the question, ‘Where does my food come from?’” she says.

UC Davis hopes to provide some of the answers.