The university that gave the world the tomato harvester and discovered a rice gene that controls tolerance to flooding will play a lead role in solving some of the world’s most vexing problems, UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi said Wednesday.
“I believe it is our responsibility to use our growing knowledge about the nexus between food production, sustainable agriculture and well-being to create a healthier nation and world,” she said, touting UCD’s newly created World Food Center during the fall convocation at the Mondavi Center.
“This is not something we can shrink from, nor would we want to do so. To feed and nourish a healthier world will need the greatest possible range of expertise in one place and across the disciplines. And that one place is UC Davis.”
Katehi, who led her fifth convocation, was joined by California Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross, the event’s keynote speaker, and researchers.
State Sen. Lois Wolk and Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, both D-Davis, presented a resolution passed earlier this month by the Legislature recognizing the College of Agriculture and Environmental Science’s No. 1 rank in ag and forestry in the QS World University Rankings.
First announced in March, the World Food Center will link agricultural and environmental science researchers with health researchers, veterinarians, engineers, management experts and others, across disciplines, as well as international experts — with the goal of addressing the need to feed an estimated 9 billion people by 2050.
UCD hopes to raise $100 million for an endowment to sustain the center.
“A World Food Center on our campus can transform and elevate our outstanding university,” Katehi said. “I believe it can do the same for the world.”
The challenge facing the new center is as big as the world itself:
* Nearly 870 million suffer from chronic undernourishment, according to the United Nations. One-third of all child deaths can be attributed to insufficient nutrition.
* In the United States, Katehi said, one-third of the population is obese and health care costs are set to reach 28 percent of the country’s gross domestic product by 2017.
UCD has done almost $200 million worth of research at the intersection of food and health during the past five years.
The chancellor ticked off a list of research achievements fitting the theme, including:
* Cancer researcher Paul Davis’ work showing that prostate cancer in mice is slowed by a diet including walnuts;
* Pediatrics professor Carol Chantry’s study that found African women infected with AIDS could breastfeed without transmitting the disease if they flash-heated the milk in boiling water before giving it to their infants; and
* Nutrition professor Kay Dewey’s work with a Gates Foundation team developing new ways to diagnose, treat and prevent malnutrition in children and infants.
Said Ross, “I believe the World Food Center will make as big a difference for people, when they reflect 100 years from now, as the placement of the University Farm School in Davisville did 100 years ago. You have all the ingredients to make it happen.”
She credited UCD with its role in helping the state’s ag industry diversify from wheat, grain and cattle a century ago to more than 400 commodities valued at $43 billion annually.
“What you do matters here,” Ross said. “You have helped contribute to a vital, resilient agricultural sector like none other in the world. That’s great for us here at home, but you also are providing the solutions to help food security be a reality for citizens of the globe.
“What you do is create new knowledge and, more importantly, terrific students who go into the world to make a difference in the lives of people.”
Ulfat Shaikh, an assistant professor of pediatrics, provided a prime example of how UCD brings together an array of experts to make a difference in community health.
“Niños Sanos, Familia Sana” (Healthy Children, Healthy Family), a program in the medically underserved, poor Central Valley towns of Firebaugh and San Joaquin, seeks to decrease obesity in Mexican-American children and their families.
The UCD team includes agricultural economists, education specialists, nutritionists, psychologists, physicians, nurses and artists, with the support of billingual students and stuff, who have provided culturally sensitive education about the benefits of healthy diets and exercise, vouchers for fruits and vegetable and regular weight screenings for kids. Community art projects increase awareness.
Wheat geneticist and the leader of UCD’s wheat breeding program, Jorge Dubcovsky, provided another story of UCD’s impact from his laboratory.
A gene responsible for the greater protein levels in a variety of wild wheat from the Middle East was found to be broken in domestic wheat varieties. Reintroducing the functional gene resulted in protein, zinc and iron levels 5 to 10 percent higher.
“Many places you do the research, you publish and that’s it,” Dubcovsky said, “but here at UC Davis we have active breeding programs. That gave us the opportunity to cross that wild wheat with our breeding lines and to develop varieties that carry that gene.
“Today we have two varieties — one bread wheat and one pasta wheat — that have this gene and have higher levels of proteins and nutrients in the grain. Because we have those seeds, we were able to distribute them to many countries.
“It’s nice to see that today there are many countries that are releasing new varieties that have this functional gene and improved nutritional value. It’s a rewarding story.”
After the convocation, a food and health fair was held for the first time on the Vanderhoef Quad outside the Mondavi Center. It featured about two dozen booths from programs on topics like fitness, health through food, companion animals and the Davis and UCD Farmers Markets.
— Reach Cory Golden at [email protected] or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden