Building Trust Between California Farmers and Consumers

William Clark, Harvard Professor, on Building Trust Between California Farmers and Consumers

By Courtney Steward, Assistant Editor

Social and conventional media are sharing widespread and varied opinions about California farmers and farming across the Central Valley and beyond, using soundbites in place of fact-based dialogue.

William Clark, Harvard Professor
William Clark, Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

At a recent workshop called “Food for a Healthy World: Monitoring Progress Towards Food Security,” sponsored by the UC Davis World Food Center and the UC Agricultural Issues Center, William Clark, Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, at first appeared to dodge giving his opinion. “It would be dumb beyond belief for me to have opinions about farmers in California,” explained Clark, “except I enjoy what they produce.”

The goal for the group of campus and visiting experts who attended the workshop was to reach agreement on the major factors that must be considered to sustainably feed the world’s population. “The reason I’m here,” he said, “is because I work on sustainable development issues broadly, and much of what is going on here in California in the farming sector as well as in the energy sector are some of the most fascinating and useful experiments anywhere—in grappling with these issues. And I come out fairly frequently to UC Davis because I find it a wonderful point of contact with the farming community here. I’ve borrowed some UC Davis students, and I learn a lot when I visit.”

Clark explained, “I think California is a state that obviously thinks hard about how it can be a productive, vibrant economy, while taking care of the environment and of the people,” evidenced by great creativity and ingenuity among California farmers and researchers. “My colleague, Tom Tomich, director of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis recently co-authored one of the first peer-reviewed articles* to emanate from the California Nitrogen Assessment (CNA), an ongoing project at UC Davis.”

Assessment research indicates that while there are many pathways through which nitrogen can enter the environment, inorganic fertilizer use is responsible for the largest fraction of new nitrogen introduced in California annually. Currently, over 600,000 tons of nitrogen fertilizer are sold in the state each year.

Tomich maintains that better nitrogen use information is indispensable for the collaborative development of effective solutions to increase nitrogen use efficiency and save farmers money. The article describes both how nitrogen flows in crop production, but also how farmers can limit the flows that create problems in the environment.  Also included are recommendations on how data could be better compiled to improve understanding of statewide trends in fertilizer use.

Clark claimed, “That’s the best nitrogen study that’s been done anywhere in the world in terms of showing how farmers are working and could be working to capture the benefits of fertilizer without offsite damages to the environment.”

Regarding these offsite flows, Clark emphasized, “I’ve almost never met a farmer who does not care deeply about the land, or the fisher about the health of the fishery or of the sea. And I think sometimes the debates that between the conservation and farm communities go completely nuts on this,” Clark explained. “I mean, you start with somebody who is making their living—has chosen a life—on the land. That’s where you start.”

“That said, all of us end up sometimes doing stuff that has some consequences we didn’t intend,” stated Clark. “I look to the science community to help all of us, including farmers, see some of the downsides of some of the practices that we do that are invisible. So, perhaps science discovers this chemical we thought was safe turns out not to be safe. Or the way we are turning over our crops has impacts on biodiversity that we didn’t know about.”

“But again,” Clark continued, “it’s the responsibility of my community, the science community, to bring those invisible but measurable discoveries into light in a conversation with farmers to reach a joint understanding of why one might want to use less of these applications and how one could use less of them while still turning out an attractive crop.”

Clark said it’s been his experience that most growers listen and try new approaches.

Clark concluded that trust between farmers, consumers, retailers, and health advocates is an all-time low. “I think  food is one of the most complicated personal issues there is. If I were trying to build trust in an arena, there’s none harder, except maybe nuclear energy, than food issues. I think we all know that we have had less dialog and more soundbite exchange, and I don’t think any side is blameless.”

“My pitch here,” Clark summarized, “is simply I don’t see how we can move forward without starting meaningful dialogues that aren’t soundbites.” Clarke wants to inspire people to ask themselves, “What am I worried about?” instead of throwing blurbs into the middle of a on-air radio conversation. He elaborated, “Whether I’m a consumer advocate, a farmer, or a retailer, ‘What am I worried about? What do I think you guys are doing that I wish you weren’t doing?’ We aren’t brain dead; we should be able to work together, as long as we can talk instead of yell.”

 

*Rosenstock T, Liptzin D, Six J, Tomich T. 2013. Nitrogen fertilizer use in California: Assessing the data, trends and a way forward. Cal Ag 67(1):68-79. DOI: 10.3733/ca.E.v067n01p68.

Global Food Safety Agreement Signed by China and UC Davis

Officials from China’s Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University in Shaanxi province, and the University of California, Davis, signed a memorandum of agreement on July 23, 2014 that lays the groundwork for establishing the Sino-U.S. Joint Research Center for Food Safety in China.

The signing ceremony was held in the city of Yingchuan, China, during a meeting between high-level officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and China’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

“Today’s agreement is a landmark event for UC Davis and for our World Food Center and serves as yet another indication of our worldwide leadership in food and health,” said UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi. “We are incredibly pleased to join forces with Northwest A&F University and look forward to making discoveries and realizing solutions that will promote food safety in China and around the world.”

Signing the agreement today were Harris Lewin, vice chancellor of research for UC Davis, and Wu Pute, professor and vice president of Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University. Also present were Catherine Woteki, undersecretary for research, education and economics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and Vice Minister Zhang Laiwu of China’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

The memorandum of agreement, which will extend over the next five years, calls for the center’s two lead universities to form a joint research team and research platform, carry out collaborative research projects and cooperate on other food safety-related projects. UC Davis’ World Food Center will identify a director to coordinate the research program. The Chinese partners will provide substantial funding for the new center, with details to be announced this fall.

“This is clear evidence that the entire UC system is fully committed to be front and center on the critical issues of food security, sustainability and health,” said UC President Janet Napolitano. She recently launched the UC Global Food Initiative as a systemwide collaboration to put the world on a path to feed itself nutritiously and sustainably.

Both the Sino-U.S. Joint Research Center and the UC Davis World Food Center will contribute to the UC Global Food Initiative.

“With UC Davis’ commitment to food safety research and China’s ever-increasing demand for food, the Joint Research Center is a natural partnership,” said Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. “Food safety will benefit from global scientific collaboration, and new findings will help the food and agriculture sector meet new challenges, improve the health of consumers and maintain the integrity of the global food supply chain.”

Roger Beachy, executive director of the UC Davis World Food Center, noted that the new food safety center is a logical outgrowth of many well-established research collaborations between scientists from UC Davis and China.

“Working closely with Chinese scientists and policymakers, the new center will have significant impacts on food safety in China and elsewhere around the globe,” he said.

Beachy said that the catalyst for the new collaborative effort was a visit to China last fall by Chancellor Katehi. During that visit, Chinese officials and UC Davis alumni identified food safety as a topic of key importance for China. Beachy, who has longstanding ties with China’s research community, became head of the World Food Center in January and has shepherded the collaborative agreement for UC Davis.

About the new food safety center

The Joint Research Center for Food Safety will promote international collaborative research and extension for food safety in China and the U.S. It will conduct research on global food safety-related policies; establish an international, high-level research platform for food safety research; propose solutions for hazards in the food-industry value chain; and develop models for implementation of international food safety standards and risk management. UC Davis and Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University will engage other research faculty from the U.S. and China in the new center.

Students from both UC Davis and China will be offered opportunities to study and train in each other’s countries. UC Davis faculty members currently have extensive collaborations with several Chinese universities, and the new joint research center is intended to expand these and initiate new activities.

On the September 12, 2014 celebration of the 80-year anniversary of the founding of China’s Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University, working details for the new center will be laid out.

“The food industry has become the largest industry in China; and food safety is a critical area for China and the U.S. to have creative cooperation and learn from each other,” said Zhang Laiwu, China’s vice minister of science and technology. “It not only involves technologies, but also policies and management. The fruitful cooperation will also be important to ensure food security.”

He added that the new cooperative agreement among UC Davis, Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University, Yangling National Agricultural High Tech Demonstration Zone, and Zhuhai Municipality of China is a creative platform for cooperation in improving food safety.

World Food Center at UC Davis and the UC Global Food Initiative

The World Food Center at UC Davis was established in 2013 to increase the economic benefit from campus research; influence national and international policy; and convene teams of scientists and innovators from industry, academia, government and nongovernmental organizations to tackle food-related challenges in California and around the world.

The UC Global Food Initiative is building on existing efforts such as the World Food Center and other endeavors at UC Davis, while creating new collaborations among the 10 UC campuses, affiliated national laboratories and the systemwide division of Agriculture and Natural Resources to support healthy eating, sustainable agriculture and food security. More information about the UC Global Food Initiative.

Other food-related collaborations with China

UC Davis faculty are currently involved in numerous collaborative research projects in China, including four food-safety efforts that specialize in the genomics of food-borne diseases, dairy safety, waterborne diseases and livestock, and environmental chemicals.

Additionally, the campus hosts the BGI@UC Davis Partnership, which focuses on genome sequencing, and the Confucius Institute, a cultural outreach program emphasizing food and beverages.

 

Graphic Source: Food Safety News