As UC Davis faculty sketched an umbrella organization bringing together research in food, agriculture and health to address world hunger, Chancellor Linda Katehi often found herself on the phone, asking the advice of Roger Beachy.
“I started speaking with him to get an idea, ‘Is this going to be useful? Will people be interested? Will this center be in a position to solve a big problem?’ ” Katehi said. “He helped us, with his perspective, in putting it together.
“Then when we started thinking, we need a founding director, it became obvious that he would be one of the people who could play that critical role.”
On Thursday, inside the Jackson Sustainable Winery Building, the chancellor announced that UCD had got its man:
The university’s new World Food Center will be led by Beachy, former U.S. Department of Agriculture chief scientist and the first director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
He said he accepted the position because of pressing global needs. Chief among them: increasing global food production by 70 percent by 2050, in order to feed 9 billion people.
“I expect the World Food Center to become perhaps the strongest university-affiliated institution of its type in the world, because of the vision and because of the outstanding faculty that are here on which this institute will build,” Beachy said.
Katehi described a center in which senior fellows from around the world work alongside UCD scientists, guiding policy as well as generating knowledge.
“This center required a very unique director,” she said. “It’s like a startup — it’s not a traditional university center. It is true that in a university environment the structures that we have developed are very top-down, many times very bureaucratic.
“This one has to be a new structure. It has to be very lean. It has to have the ability to encourage people to think out of the box. It has to be versatile in many ways. And it has to be effective.”
Beachy, Katehi said, “will give us the profile and visibility we need to get the center fully established, endowed and staffed, and, of course, recognized not just here locally, but around the world, for its impact.”
Beachy built his reputation as a plant pathologist. While he was a professor and director of the Center for Plant Science and Technology at Washington University in St. Louis (1978-1991), he and his colleagues developed the first genetically modified crop: a disease-resistant tomato.
His discoveries there led to the development of disease-resistant potatoes, peppers, sugar beets and other vegetables and fruits.
He went on to head the Division of Plant Biology at The Scripps Research Institute (1991-98) in La Jolla, where he was also a professor of cell biology and co-director of a lab focused on tropical agricultural biotechnology. Beachy also served as founding president of the St. Louis-based Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (1999-2009) before going to Washington.
“I’ve learned how critical it is that researchers and scientists engage in and inform policy,” Beachy said. “Indeed, it is important that social scientists … interact with natural scientists in this important arena of food and agriculture which is so highly politicized, which has so many advocates for the wrong things.”
An elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, Beachy received the prestigious Wolf Prize in Agriculture in 2001.
Since stepping down at USDA, Beachy has served as executive director of the Global Institute for Food Security in Saskatchewan, Canada.
Beachy’s USDA appointment unsettled critics of the genetically modified crops. A major funder of the Danforth Center, which he directed, is Monsanto Co., also headquartered in Missouri.
On Thursday, he described himself a “strong proponent of using a genetic approach to controlling pests and pathogens in our food crops, of using genetic approaches to make sure toxins and mycotoxins are not present, of using genetics to remove allergens and other harmful parts of plants.”
He cited research by wheat geneticist Jorge Dubcovsky as an example. Working with colleagues at UCD and Kansas State University, Dubcovsky has identified a gene resistant to stem rust, which causes large crop losses in Africa and Asia.
Beachy said his work over the next year will be to get the new center — for now, a center in name only — fully operational, raise money and build partnerships on and off campus, with industry, government and foundations.
The center’s associate director, who started on Aug. 1, is Josette Lewis, who grew up in Davis and earned a bachelor’s degree in genetics from UCD in 1988. She received her doctorate in molecular genetics from UCLA in 1998.
Lewis spent 16 years working for the U.S Agency for International Development, most recently playing a lead role in developing Feed the Future, the Obama administration’s global hunger and food security initiative.
Beachy will receive an annual salary of $212,000 for working 80 percent time, according to UCD. Lewis will be paid $153,500 annually.
State Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross said Beachy’s hiring gives the center “a jump-start.”
“I was so surprised when I heard that the chancellor had convinced Roger to do this,” Ross said. “He’s in demand. He’s a world-renowned scientist. The positions he’s served in, the work that he’s done, are so well-respected. It’s as much about the kind of person that Roger is — he’s a great scientist but he has a passion for feeding people that has driven everything he’s ever done.”
Added Ross, “Because of his reputation, which is based on real-world results, he’s going to have some immediate connections to potential partners that someone else might take a long time (to make). People will come to Roger. He commands that kind of respect on a global basis.”
Richard Michelmore, director of the UCD Genome Center, whose own research includes disease resistance in lettuce, said having Beachy as director will bring “more coherence” and coordination to the scores of food-related projects on campus.
Beachy also has the potential to bring in research dollars, which have become more difficult to find.
“You can have all the aspirations and goals you want, but you can’t print money,” Michelmore said. “As Roger points out, this is not cheap. Having an impact is very much driven by the opportunity and having the money to do something about it.”
— Reach Cory Golden at email@example.com or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden