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Standing In: The future of food will play out here

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From page A2 | October 02, 2013 |

The staff of life, the way to a man’s (and woman’s) heart, food is our direct linkage to the Earth, it links us to our friends and families and it is a defining element of our persona. I am more likely to know if my friend is vegetarian, pescatarian, omnivore, carnivore, locavore or vegan than to know their age or religion. Which is great.

In the words the French author Brillat-Savarin, “Tell me what you eat, I will tell you who you are.” The technological and sociological landscape of food production has been in flux for the past decade and this flux is accelerating, so let’s dig into a couple of these trends.

Starting with the locavore trend. Because we are Yolo Countians (also known as Yolians), we have the best fresh produce at our doorstep, a number of community supported agriculture programs, a vibrant Farmers Market and enlightened supermarkets and restaurants. Visitors from the Midwest are awestruck by the quality and access to great produce — one more reason to love living in Davis.

But, I’ve heard that only 2 percent of the agricultural production in Yolo County stays in Yolo County. Tomatoes, walnuts and almonds are destined for the rest of California, the nation and the world. And, the sunflowers you see in fields everywhere this time of year, they are producing seed that will plant next year’s sunflower crops everywhere except Yolo County. So, we can embrace our locavore opportunity but also embrace the fact that our county also feeds the nation and the world.

So, how about flavovores? This is not a trend yet, but that’s what I am and I’m predicting that this will be the next big trend, especially if we can get Michael Pollan to write a book about this. My friend, Harry Klee, at the University of Florida has been talking about a Faustian deal that modern agriculture made a few decades ago — trading efficient production and high yields for flavor.

For those readers my age or older, the memory of how a good tomato tastes is still vivid, but nevertheless only a memory. This “lost virtue” of tomatoes has been the victim of breeding for high yield, disease resistance and uniform color — everything the industry needs to keep the trucks rolling this time of year in Yolo County.

Harry is trying to turn back the clock and believes he can create a tomato with 80 percent of the flavor of the best heirloom variety and 80 percent of the production traits of the best commercial variety; you can hear more on NPR about this. So, stay tuned, flavovores. This could be a trend and a welcome one.

Now there is also a dirty secret of food that I’ll share with you — food production accounts for 10 to 12 percent  of the human-driven carbon dioxide emissions, and that’s a lot. This comes from fossil fuel consumption from tractors as well as from farm animals and crops themselves.

Cows are well-known to produce methane as part of their digestive process but, did you know that rice does, too? The natural soil processes in a rice paddy produce methane that rises through the plant and is released to the atmosphere. Because methane is about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its global warming potential, this is a problem. There is a growing tension between food production, the growing global population and the carbon footprint of agriculture. So what are we going to do, stop eating?

David Lobell from Stanford has been looking at this tension and come up with some interesting ideas that focus on a strategy called “sustainable intensification” of agriculture. This is now becoming the buzzword for solving the food/population equation. His studies showed that the genetic (breeding and not GMO) and agronomic technologies that created the rapid yield increases from 1961 to 2005 saved 20 to 30 percent of the all greenhouse gases emitted by humans between 1850 and 2005. In other words, global warming or climate change would be 20 to 30 percent worse. And because higher yields spared the destruction of some of the tropical rainforest that otherwise might have been converted to agriculture, these technologies also reduced biodiversity losses.

The future of food will be quite a complex and interesting development to watch, and much of it will play out in our back yard because, like most social and technological trends, California leads the way. And in agriculture, Yolo County leads the way.

How will locavores, flavovores and the climate fare as the world moves toward feeding the future population of 9 billion to 10 billion people? Stay tuned.

— Alan Bennett is professor of plant sciences at UC Davis where he has been an active researcher, educator, policy adviser and technology transfer advocate.

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