UC Food Blog
As I inhaled my salad, I couldn't help but think of the recent E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that affected at least 24 people in the U.S. and more than 40 in Canada. Originally it was blamed on Romaine lettuce, but early in January the CDC said in a statement that the likely source of the outbreak in the United States appears to be leafy greens. However, officials have not identified a specific type of leafy green or specifically where it originated.
A 2013 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control revealed that 46 percent of all foodborne illnesses that led to hospitalization or death between 1998 and 2008 were attributable to fresh produce. The report brought to the consumers' attention that, while fresh fruits and vegetables are the cornerstones of a healthy diet, when improperly handled, they can be fatal.
In spite of these sobering statistics I feel confident to continue my consumption of raw produce, in part because of the knowledge of such things as the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program administered by CDFA to create and deliver educational materials for growers to assist in conducting agricultural water sampling and environmental assessments. The grant is part of an effort to help growers meet the requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule (PSR) standards for safe foods.
Western Institute for Food Safety and Security (WIFSS) and UC Agricultural and Natural Resource (ANR) personnel - including pathologist Bennie Osburn, UC Cooperative Extension specialist Alda Pires, UCCE specialist Erin DiCaprio, and WIFFS staff Heather Johnson and Ronald Bond - are developing a guide for California's mid- and small- farm specialty crop growers to meet the requirements of the PSR. Training materials, including online and face-to-face field exercises, will be developed for extension specialists and farm advisors. To facilitate the learning experience, there will be online information in multiple languages including Spanish, Hmong, Mandarin and English to meet the diverse needs of California specialty crop growers. The final step in the process will be to deliver the course materials in seven outreach workshops in those regions of California where mid- and small-sized growers are located.
With UC Davis and UC ANR working together to support California specialty crop growers as they work to meet the new compliance standards of the FSMA PSR, we can long enjoy the abundant, fresh leafy green produce produced in California's fertile valleys.
Can plants typically grown for hedgerows also be a source of income? That's the question guiding a new UC study on the potential for farmers to grow elderberries as a commercial crop.
Blue elderberry, a California native plant with clusters of small bluish-black berries and a sweet-tart flavor, have long been eaten by Native Americans in the western states and are used today in jam, syrups, wines and liqueurs. And while elderberry orchards are popping up in parts of the Midwest, California's elderberries are usually just grown on field edges, and elderberry products sold retail rely mostly on foraged crops or imports.
Farmers at The Cloverleaf Farm near Davis are already selling elderberry products from plants grown on their farm, alongside their blackberries and stone fruits. And they find that customers love them. The farmers want to understand the viability of growing elderberries for market beyond their nascent effort, bringing some of the out-of-state production home.
The UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP) launched a project in collaboration with the Cloverleaf Farm, the UC Agriculture Issues Center, UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology, and four Central Valley farmers to assess the farm management practices, nutritional content, and market potential for elderberry and elderberry products in California.
“I think a lot about the long-term systems sustainability of our food system,” said Katie Fyhrie, one of the farmers at the Cloverleaf. “I keep thinking about how much we focus on production of blackberries and blueberries, when the elderberry also achieves that dark berry color and flavor people like with much fewer resources.”
Elderberries are typically grown on farms as hedgerows for their ability to attract beneficial insects, act as a windbreak, and sequester carbon, benefiting the overall health of the farm, but not providing direct benefit to a farmer's bottom line. Despite long-running federal cost-share programs for planting hedgerows, the number planted in California is still quite small relative to the large expanses of farmland in the state. Adding a financial incentive to planting elderberries may help increase the popularity of hedgerows amongst farmers.
As climate change impacts California with heat and unpredictable water availability, some studies suggest farmers may need to consider diversifying the crops they grow to adapt to changing local climates.
Elderberries, which grow in arid California regions along the coast and into the mountains, have the potential to grow in a range of climates and adapt to changing California ecosystems in the future.
It is unlikely that farmers would plant entire orchards of elderberries, in part because of restrictions on pruning elderberries that may be home to the Valley elderberry longhorn beetle, a federally threatened species. But for small- and medium-scale growers looking to diversify their income sources, elderberries may provide a boost.
The two-year elderberry project now underway will conclude with a growers' production guide, cost of production study, an assessment of market demand and nutritional contents, and workshops to help link growers with buyers interested in elderberry products. The project will also address issues related to the Valley elderberry longhorn beetle and generating income from hedgerows.
“Elderberry juice is already in so many products,” Fyrhie said, “so building a market for locally grown elderberries seems like a no-lose situation.”
For farmers interested in learning more about incorporating perennials into annual crop farms and similar agroforestry practices, view a webinar on the topic recently hosted by UC SAREP here.
As we settle into 2018, it's natural to wonder what the New Year may bring. There have been dozens of "trend pieces" discussing what's in store. In this wrap, we consider possible 2018 trends in water, the GM debate, science communication, and food and nutrition.
After one of the driest Decembers on record, many Californians continue to worry about water supply. I turned to UC ANR water expert Faith Kearns. Faith is a scientist and communicator at the California Institute for Water Resources, a UC ANR-based "think-tank" that integrates California's research, extension, and education programs to develop research-based solutions to water resource challenges. Faith writes about water issues for a number of publications, including UC's Confluence blog. She was recently
Faith told me this:
"Water quantity and human use tend to be the dominant lenses that we use to talk about water in California, but they're not the only thing we need to be paying attention to. For example, water quality issues loom equally as large, and are of course related. But, even beyond that, there are also many non-use oriented ways that water impacts our lives - through recreation, aesthetics, and culture, just to name a few. A trend that I hope to see in 2018 is a broadening of the conversation on water, and an expansion of the kinds of knowledge that are brought to bear on water issues."
Editor's note: The quality of American drinking water continues to be a point of local and national concern; it will undoubtedly be an important topic in the 2018 midterm elections in certain congressional districts. Learn more about this vital public health and social justice issue by visiting the National Drinking Water Alliance website (NDWA). NDWA is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and coordinated by UC ANR's Nutrition Policy Institute.
The debate over genetically modified food: Entering a new era?
UC Davis associate professor and plant pathologist Neil McRoberts - who was recently named co-leader of UC ANR's Strategic Initiative in Sustainable Food Systems - shared his ideas about where we might be headed in terms of framing the GM discussion.
"...The GM debate is entering a new era with the growing use of gene editing - CRSPR-Cas9 - technology. Interestingly, this time around the ethics and socio-economics debate seems to be keeping pace with the science, as witnessed by the latest issue of the Journal of Responsible Innovation, which focuses on gene drive technologies and their uses. The special issue grew out of a workshop hosted at NCSU last year. The use of CRSPR has re-opened debates about how genetic modification should be regulated and labeled."
Editor's note: You can learn more about Neil's work here. He recently wrote a guest blog post for UC Food Observer about the importance of cash crops to smallholder farmers in Uganda and Malaysia. For more about the GM debate, read the text of Mark Lynas' speech to the Oxford Farming Conference, in which he tries to "map out the contours of a potential peace treaty" between GM proponents and the technology's opponents. h/t Nathanael Johnson.
Will 2018 usher in an era of more civil communication around science-based topics?
*It depends on us.
Across the board, our public discourse took a dive in 2017 ... and that's a shame. Here's to a New Year ... and resolving to do a better job at communicating with clarity, integrity and with less judgment. The advancement of science (and perhaps the preservation of our sanity) depend upon it.
I loved this piece by Tamar Haspel, which recently appeared in the Washington Post and specifically addresses science communication and agriculture/food issues. Shorter: If we want to persuade people, we have to be respectful. She writes:
“Rudeness can increase polarization and entrench disagreements even further. Nasty begets nasty; it's regression toward the mean ..."
As both a scientist and a communicator, UC ANR's Faith Kearns also informed my thinking on where the communications trend line ought to go for 2018, telling me that:
"One of the bigger challenges, and opportunities, facing the science communication community is how to really push ourselves to better incorporate more perspectives from the social sciences and humanities. This is particularly true on issues like food, agriculture, and the environment where so much of what is truly challenging is related to human behavior, decision-making, and psychology. It's not just a matter of using research on science communication to inform practice, but also of responsibly integrating different forms of knowledge into communication efforts."
Food and nutrition trends
There are an overwhelming number of food trend pieces out right now. The Hartman Group is a good account to follow to stay apprised of food trends throughout the year. Their Year in Review blog post is definitely worth a read. It identifies some trends from last year that will likely carry forward, including consumer demands for transparency, "conscious" consumerism, customized health and wellness, and the ways in which snacking is disrupting food culture. Bonus: you can access some of Hartman's industry reports via links included in the blog post.
And if you're having trouble keeping that New Year's resolution to exercise more, consider reading this piece, which reports on a study indicating that exercise alters our microbiome - which could improve our health and metabolism. Gretchen Reynolds for the New York Times.
Have a great week!
This article was first published in the UC Food Observer blog.
As we celebrate the winter holiday season with its many joyful occasions, it's sobering to think how many people are in need of nutritious food. Millions of people are at risk of going hungry, says Feeding America. And according to groundbreaking studies by the University of California, we now know that a large number of college students are among the hungry.
A significant problem, “starving students” are not a lighthearted joke: students are going hungry and sometimes homeless, too. Food and housing insecurity among college students threatens their health, as well as their academic achievements.
The University of California began examining the issue of student food insecurity in 2015 with the Student Food Access and Security Surveys funded by President Napolitano as part of the UC Global Food Initiative. The resulting Student Food Access and Security Study was authored by the UC ANR Nutrition Policy Institute's Lorrene Ritchie and Suzanna Martinez and UC Santa Barbara's Katie Maynard.
The Student Food Access and Security Study examined the results of two surveys administered online in spring 2015 to a random sample of more than 66,000 students across all 10 UC campuses. Fourteen percent of the students -- 8,932 undergraduate and graduate students in all -- responded.
Nineteen percent of the students responding to the survey had “very low” food security, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines as experiencing reduced food intake at times due to limited resources. An additional 23 percent of survey respondents had “low” food security, which the USDA defines as reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet, with little or no indication of reduced food intake.
Added together, an alarming 42 percent of the students surveyed were food insecure.
Soon after the Student Food Access and Security Survey results were published, partners of the UC Global Food Initiative throughout the UC system began developing the Student Food Access and Security toolkit.
The toolkit compiles best practices that have evolved at UC campuses as the university advanced efforts to nourish and support students.
Each section of the toolkit provides examples across multiple campuses to highlight the range of activities underway, as well as lessons learned.
Meeting basic needs: Food security and housing security
Expenses other than tuition can make up more than 60 percent of the cost of attending college today. The cost of living for college students has risen by more than 80 percent over the past four decades.
To better understand the prevalence of food insecurity among University of California students, the university has continued to examine the issue of student food insecurity and is beginning to assess students' housing insecurity. Food security and housing security are basic needs that students must meet to maintain their health and well-being so that they can focus on achieving academically.
A new report, “Global Food Initiative: Food and Housing Security at the University of California” was released December 20, 2017, and an executive summary is also available. This new report recognizes student basic needs as a statewide and national issue.
UC has done much over the past three years to help students meet basic needs. The findings from the new report will help UC go even further. The new findings will inform strategies for addressing basic needs security, including the creation of a UC basic needs master plan.
Perhaps we can retire the “joke” of the starving student after all.
- Wisconsin HOPE Lab Study: Hungry and Homeless in College
- Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream
- The FAST Fund
At the end of a long year, sometimes it helps to reconnect with what motivates your work.
For Karin Albornoz — a Ph.D. student who works in the Diane Beckles Lab at UC Davis on molecular biology related to tomato postharvest chilling injury — that means getting out into the world to work directly with small-scale farmers.
"I spend so much time in the lab," she said. "Sometimes I spend a whole day in the lab extracting RNA or writing a paper. This reminds me why I am doing this work: to make a real-world impact."
Just over a week ago, she returned from a trip to Uganda where she did exactly that. In partnership with a local organization called Ndibwami Integrated Rescue Project (NIRP), Albornoz shared her expertise with farmers through several hands-on workshops about improving harvest practices and postharvest handling of pineapple, passion fruit and tomatoes. Her work was supported by the Horticulture Innovation Lab, an international agricultural research program led by UC Davis with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development as part of Feed the Future, the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative.
Though Albornoz has worked with rural farmers before, this was her first time working in Africa.
"Everywhere I looked, things were growing. There were people working in the field, women cooking, and everyone was working with food," she said. "I know there's a lot of stigma – when you talk about Africa, you see people's faces change and they're thinking about things like drought and famine and starving children. But what I saw doesn't fit that stereotype. The challenges they are facing seem to be about not having access to opportunities."
The workshops she led are part of the NIRP organization's efforts to connect farmers with more lucrative markets that pay higher prices for quality produce.
In this 2-minute video, Karin Albornoz visits a pineapple farm, leads a pineapple training and discusses next steps for this project led by NIRP in Uganda. The video clips and photos were taken by Karin while she was working and edited by Hallie Casey for the Horticulture Innovation Lab.
For months, Albornoz has been in contact with NIRP and making plans for the farmer workshops. She prepared postharvest handling manuals for each crop — pineapple, passion fruit and tomato — and asked questions to better understand local resources and the farmers' existing knowledge.
During her 2 weeks in Uganda, she visited farmers' fields and led three full-day workshops. The first workshop for about 50 farmers focused on pineapple — starting with understanding local quality parameters for this fruit, then best practices for harvesting, sanitation, storage and transportation. The second workshop was focused on tomato, with a similar structure, and the third workshop on passion fruit.
Her favorite moment? The farmers' first chance to use a refractometer, to measure soluble solids and learn about sugar levels in the fruit. The refractometers were part of a small toolkit the organization will continue to use.
"They were excited to handle this device and see, in numbers, how the sugar levels of the fruit changed depending on the stage of maturity," she said. "Everyone in the room had a chance to try it."
The experience reinforced her commitment to working with farmers and solving agricultural problems.
"A major mistake is to think that you are going just to train or teach other people because those people are always going to end up teaching you too," Albornoz said. "I made a promise to myself years ago, a personal commitment to working with people in vulnerable situations. I have to do this. Working in agriculture can be a very powerful tool to have an impact in the world."
As Karin's mentor and an Associate Professor in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences and Agricultural Experiment Station, Diane Beckles supported Karin's work outside of the lab and views such an experience as important to scholarly development.
"Something magical happens when we teach and engage in outreach," Beckles said. "We often deepen our understanding of what we are teaching, and interacting and engaging with others changes us in that process. It alters how we view and think about science in a way that is positive and rewarding, even though it is not easily quantified."
- More about Trellis Fund projects with the Horticulture Innovation Lab
- Pineapple recommendations from the UC Postharvest Center