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Changing the Future of Food

How are we going to feed our world? Graduate students who come to UC Davis are biting off big pieces of that global question.

They have a big mission: making wine-grape production more sustainable, predicting what’s going to happen to farmworkers as they become educated, making sure that chocolate is also a sweet experience for cacao farmers and — get this — improving lima beans (you are invited to laugh about that one).

Read and get inspired.

Sustainability for California grape growers

By Michael LevyEnvironmental Policy and Behavior

 Vineyard on a hill with colorful sky
Mike Levy’s research focuses on viticulture environmental practices and certifications. (Thinkstock photo)

In my first major research project at Davis, I’ve been figuring out what makes wine-grape growers adopt environmental practices and certifications.

We survey the growers throughout California and then analyze the data to answer questions such as, “How does who you know affect whether you’ll join an environmental certification program?”

By understanding what makes farmers adopt environmental practices, I can help policymakers and outreach specialists help farmers make a profit while protecting their communities and the environment. 

People tend to lump social science with the humanities, but as someone with degrees in chemistry and biology, I can say that what I’m doing is “hard science,” working to develop an academic movement that applies rigorous hypothesis-testing methods to complex social systems.

The future of migrant farmworkers

By Diane CharltonAgricultural and Resource Economics

Living in California, surrounded by farms, I’ve been interested to learn about the immigrants who come here to work in agriculture.

My adviser, Ed Taylor, and I find that the probability that an individual from rural Mexico works in agriculture — whether working in Mexico or the U.S. — is declining.

Now, I am investigating why the farm labor supply is decreasing. My hypothesis is that better access to education in rural Mexico reduces the probability that younger generations work in agriculture — and consequently U.S. and Mexican farms must compete for a diminishing supply of farm labor.

I am researching whether Mexican policies that improve access to education simultaneously shrink the supply of farm labor to U.S. and Mexican farms, implying that immigration policy will have limited influence on the future farm labor supply in the U.S.


Sustainable cacao: Does certification pay?

By Melissa SchweisguthInternational Agricultural Development and Agricultural and Resource Economics

I’m a bit of a chocolate fanatic … but want to know the chocolate I enjoy helps improve livelihoods in cacao farming communities. Certifications promising economic, social and environmental sustainability appear on more chocolate bars every day, leaving me curious if these really benefit farmers.

Certifications typically add costs for farmers—and consumers and companies. Many smallholders live near poverty, so it’s especially critical to verify if these added costs really improve their profits and well-being. Little independent research has explored this.

This led me to survey 300 farmers and co-ops in Côte d’Ivoire in Western Africa, to compare economic outcomes and perceptions across Rainforest Alliance, Utz Certified and noncertified farmers. I asked them about costs and income to determine profits, and their perceptions about their economic and general well-being. I am working on the analysis now.

I hope my research will help producers and buyers make informed decisions about certification, and improve cacao community well-being. You can see where we conducted our survey on this map.

Melissa has an invitation for readers: She has  been accepted to present her research in the Interdisciplinary Graduate and Professional Student Symposium on April 4 and invites readers to attend.

Lima beans: ‘poster’ plant for sustainability

By Sarah DohlePlant Biology

I really enjoy watching people grin or laugh out loud when I say that I research lima beans. It’s a memorable introduction and a wonderfully approachable way to get people curious about science and the potential of agriculture research.

On a more serious note, I can tell you that I’m working to improve crops for more sustainable farming practices. My project includes using next-generation sequencing technology to find genes associated with pest resistance to facilitate breeding improved crop varieties, in particular lima beans.

There are advantages to researching this plant at UC Davis. The lima bean breeding program is only one of two in the country. And, what we learn from lima beans can be applied to other crops as well.

I have the opportunity to work with scientists and farmers, and my research is a nice combination of lab and field work with potential for travel. In fact, I’m applying for a USAID National Science Foundation grant to collaborate with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia and work on lima bean research in the tropics during the winter.

Update on March 24: I've tentatively been awarded the USAID NSF fellowship (the final announcement will be in a couple of weeks), which means I'll be heading to Cali, Colombia, in October!

Sarah invites readers to Plant Breeding Symposium at UC Davis on April 11, 2014.

Visit the World Food Center to learn more about how UC Davis is feeding the world.