UC Food Blog
The farmers who first introduced Missoula, Montana-native Liz Carlisle to the revolution taking place deep in her home state's grain belt were a diverse group that included lefty liberals, fundamentalist Christians, and freewheeling libertarians. But they shared a common plight: Years of drought and costly chemicals had damaged their bottom line and their soil, and threatened their family farms.
Center for Diversified Farming Systems, first encountered the group when she worked for U.S. Senator Jon Tester. They were disparagingly called “weed farmers” by Tester's more conservative constituents because of the messy, low-lying appearance of the plants they farmed: organic lentils.
Lentils were a natural for Montana's water-stressed landscape. When there's no water, the plants neither wither nor bolt—they simply pause their growth cycle. So they don't require irrigation. On top of that, they also preserve nitrogen in the soil, fertilizing themselves and leaving behind healthier soil for the next crop.
By cooperating instead of competing, the group of former conventional farmers built a successful company, Timeless Seeds, and showed doubters, including their own state university, that sustainable farming was both possible and profitable.
Carlisle, who studied with Michael Pollan and received book-jacket support from food luminaries including Marion Nestle, Frances Moore Lappé, and Raj Patel, is herself part of the colorful cast of characters she paints in the book: She was a professional country singer and learned that the “amber waves of grain” she sung about didn't live up to their hype as she gigged her way across the country and chatted with farmers after shows.
Carlisle implanted herself in the community of Timeless Seeds farmers across four years of dissertation research, and through their story she lays out a workable vision for sustainable agriculture in the age of climate change.
Not just what we eat, but also how food is produced and its impacts on the economy, health and the environment. How the food system has been transformed, why it matters and what we can do about it.
“People care about food,” said opening lecturer Michael Pollan, author and UC Berkeley journalism professor. “I think food is a very powerful teaching tool.”
Pollan and Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters, a UC Berkeley alumna who founded the Edible Schoolyard Project, started Edible Education in 2011 as a way to bring food education to undergraduate students. This semester's course — which is co-hosted by New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman and poet Robert Hass — has an added dimension: Lectures are being live streamed to the public. The opening lecture has received more than 7,000 views so far. Upcoming guest speakers will include Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser and Raj Patel.
“We're a public university,” said course instructor Garrison Sposito, a renowned UC Berkeley soil scientist. “Let's reach the public. How can we do that in today's world? Let's do that by technology.”
As part of the UC Global Food Initiative, UC Berkeley also hopes to offer Edible Education as an online course available for credit to students throughout the UC system, said David Chai, special adviser to UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.
Edible Education is presented by the Edible Schoolyard Project, Berkeley Food Institute, UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources and UC Global Food Initiative with support from the UC Berkeley Chancellor's Office and the Epstein/Roth Foundation.
Advancing food studies
“If you look at the lineup of speakers, it's pretty impressive,” said Bittman, who is a distinguished visiting fellow this spring at the Berkeley Food Institute. “I think the results will be fantastic.”
Having the support of UC President Janet Napolitano and the Global Food Initiative adds credibility to the study of food, said Nestle, a food studies, nutrition and public health expert who will deliver the next Edible Education lecture at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 2.
Nestle, a New York University professor with a visiting appointment at UC Berkeley's journalism school, recalled having to convince NYU's administration in 1996 that food studies was a suitable academic pursuit. “We were it at the time,” Nestle said. “Now everybody's doing it. It's very exciting.”
Hass, a UC Berkeley professor of English and former U.S. poet laureate who has taught an environmental studies course with Sposito, said that when they invited Pollan to speak nearly two decades ago, “you could see the way students were engaged. Immediately, they could connect.” Today's students are even more sophisticated, Hass said.
“It's important that we all become more aware of what the food industry is doing — I can't walk by without someone eating a hamburger,” UC Berkeley sophomore Audrey Nguyen said. “We can't sacrifice our health for convenience.”
Pollan said there is a place for meat but he encouraged people to eat less of it and said he would like to see changes in how animals are raised. During his lecture, “A Brief History of the Modern Food System,” he noted a rapid transformation into an oil-dependent food chain. He demonstrated his point by placing a McDonald's hamburger on a table with four glasses, into which he poured a dark liquid (chocolate syrup) meant to represent oil.
“(It takes) 26 ounces of oil to produce one double quarter pounder with cheese,” Pollan said. “We're eating a lot of oil.”
Upcoming Edible Education lectures will further explore the rise and future of the food movement.
- Edible Education (includes link to watch lectures live)
- Food luminaries to light up spring semester
- Mark Bittman's menu to include UC Berkeley
- Food education streams into the spotlight
- UC Global Food Initiative
Developed as part of its Global Food Initiative, the UC Food Observer blog (www.ucfoodobserver.com) and related social media channels capture and highlight important news and further discussions about the world of food, complementing efforts of ANR's Food Blog.
Find out more in this Q&A with UC Food Observer curator Rose Hayden-Smith, a UC academic, author and historian.
What can readers expect from UC Food Observer?
UC Food Observer offers a daily roundup of interesting news, reports and thought pieces from a broad range of sources that represent diverse perspectives. The intent is not to focus on UC, but instead allow UC to reflect and perhaps add to the very important discussions that are occurring. Pieces will be posted throughout the day on the UC Food Observer website and social media. The goal is to achieve a balance of perspectives and topics in the lineup. If it might help the reader, larger context may be provided, through background information or additional links in a posting. There also will be an original long-form piece a couple of times each month by me and guest commentators. And UC Food Observer will be engaging actively with people across social media. The hope is to add value to the conversation and to provide a service.
What's the inspiration for the blog?
The idea originated with our colleague, Pete King. With interest in food and agriculture at an all-time high, it seemed like there might be space for something like this: a knowledgeable, curated selection of what's important and interesting in the dialogue around food. There's an incredible amount of good information on any number of topics relating to food and agriculture. There are big ideas out there, and great conversations occurring. If UC Food Observer can help share some of that information, highlight key themes and connect people, it will be a good thing. The more we all know, the better.
Why is the blog needed?
To have a neutral voice pulling together the most important and interesting parts of the conversation around food gives both food insiders and the general public another source of information that hopefully will reflect the constantly evolving food landscape. We hope that the blog will add value to the myriad conversations occurring; not only by including and sharing the terrific work that's being produced by others, but also by providing some unique, original content. We also hope that the blog may engage audiences who have not previously been as engaged in food systems work. Everyone eats. Everyone is a stakeholder in the food system.
It's a process of continually scanning the environment, talking to people and organizing a well-balanced “menu” of content each day. The team has a calendar of key gatherings that one of us either attends or “watches” via social media. The content will reflect diverse interests and follow many threads of discussion. A part of the decision-making lies in thinking about what might inform and inspire others.
Included is breaking news and information that's less time-sensitive — for example, perhaps the release of a significant report. A daily lineup generally will include news, information about events and some lighter pieces such as book reviews. We'll share different things on each platform, so the articles shared on Facebook may differ from the articles included in the blog. Content is organized around a couple of dozen categories ranging from local events to issues of global importance. Featuring UC news is not a primary goal; institutional news finds its way into the lineup on its own merit.
The original pieces will vary, but readers can certainly expect some to include a historical perspective and how the lessons of the past might apply to contemporary issues.
You're an author, historian and garden educator. How will that inform your curation for UC Food Observer?
I have an unusual professional background. I consider myself a “consilient” thinker (i.e., literally the “jumping together of knowledge” from various disciplines, as explained by British polymath William Whewell). I've worked as both a technical and more creative writer. I've worked in the technology industry, been an educator, a youth development professional in 4-H, a Master Gardener advisor, done some advocacy work as a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Fellow and served as leader for UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' strategic initiative in sustainable food systems.
My training as a U.S. historian always gives me pause to consider context and to examine how current practices might be influenced by the past. I've curated exhibits and online content as a historian. You make decisions about content, and hopefully they are inclusive, representative and honor various perspectives. I am always eager to understand how we got here. I consider my work as a historian a scientific enterprise: I study the rate, nature and character of change over time.
My personal experience as a school and community garden educator has shaped my thinking in profound ways. I think I bridge social and cultural understandings of food systems with more technical aspects and systems thinking. Things are inextricably linked in a food system — it truly is a web — and I like to think about issues from the hands-on, local level to the broadest implications of that work (often global).
As a UC academic and alum, what led to your interest in this position?
This position combines all the things that I am most passionate about in a single enterprise. I love the opportunity to learn about new things in the food system every day, and being able to cover a broad intellectual and cultural landscape is appealing. I'm a communicator by nature: writing, interacting and connecting with others are all fundamental aspects of who I am. I think the topic of food is incredibly interesting, nuanced, varied and rich … and I think understanding food systems is vital to nearly every challenge we face in the world.
I'm thrilled that UC is engaging in this work. UC has influenced my life in amazing ways … and that experience of influence and learning is still unfolding. I participated in the 4-H program as a youth, was in-residence at UC for summer programs during high school, and attended UC as an undergraduate and graduate student (the last one: three times). Over the course of my career, I have worked in campus-based academic departments, campus extension, the Cooperative Extension service and in student affairs. I am amazed each day — anew — by how the UC system influences our day-to-day lives in the most positive of ways locally and in a more global sense. I reflected a little about all of this in a California Agriculture article I wrote on the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Land Grant Act. It's a wonderful opportunity — and a privilege — to be part of UC's work in this critical area.
If you could change one thing in the food system, what would it be?
That's a difficult question. So many changes are needed. In my book, which was published last year, I identify 10 steps that I think people could take to effect change; many relate to gardening, which is a passion of mine. There's been a great deal of discussion recently about an op-ed written by Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador and Olivier De Schutter. It appeared in the Washington Post and called for a national food policy. It's a bold idea … and a necessary one.
I encourage what I term a “fundamental restructuring of agricultural and food policies.” What we have currently is a hodge-podge of regulations and policies that are often in contradiction with one another and that don't always serve us (people and the environment) well. We need a more coherent national policy that considers all aspects of the food system. Our national policy impacts the global food system.
I remain extremely concerned about childhood nutrition and food access. As a nation, we've struggled with this for decades. Childhood nutrition and food access are among the great moral issues of our time – they need to be addressed and resolved.
At the outset of WWII, Vice President Henry Wallace told the nation, “On a foundation of good food we can build anything. Without it we can build nothing.”
I know Wallace has a mixed legacy, but this statement strikes me as both a profound truth and a goal we ought to aspire to.
A souper bowl of chili, that is.
Question is, which recipe to prepare? Well, the Solano County 4-H Youth Development Program to the rescue.
Every year the Solano County 4-H Project Skills Day includes a Solano County 4-H Chili Cookoff. Teams sign up, prepare their chili in advance, and transport it in a crockpot or slow cooker to the venue (this year it was the C. A. Jacobs Middle School in Dixon). They field questions from the judges, who sample it, score it and select the winning team.
This year's winner was a pepper-loving team that used four different kinds of peppers and the secret ingredient — love.
The group, all members of the Dixon Ridge 4-H Club and enrolled in the countywide Outdoor Cooking Project, chose Pasilla, Serrano, Anaheim and green bell peppers and also displayed "specimens" in front of their crockpot.
Team members Quincy and Fallon Decious and Shaley and Braydon Gish said they plan to make the chili for their families on Super Bowl Sunday. “It's really good,” they all agreed.
While preparing the peppers, they said they wore “doctor gloves” to prevent the potent pepper oils from reaching their skin.
The judges praised the flavor and texture, the display and their enthusiasm. Judges were Cutter Hicks, reporter with the Dixon Tribune; Jim Nessen of Dixon, who works for a data company in Sacramento, and Kathy Keatley Garvey, a University of California, Davis employee and a longtime 4-H volunteer and food columnist.
Valerie Williams, Solano County 4-H Program representative, said the cookoff competition teaches the participants public speaking as well as cooking and presentation skills.
“Public speaking has been a cornerstone of the 4-H Youth Development Program,” she said. “Public speaking skills are ranked No. 1 among the skill sets of professionals.” Youths participating in the Project Skills Day “develop many life skills, including public speaking, organizing ideas, and creating and using graphics, resulting in increased self-esteem and confidence.”
Four teams competed in the annual cookoff. Others were:
- Los Chileros, Pleasants Valley 4-H Club, Vacaville, comprised of Gracie O'Dell, Randy Marley and Justin Means
- Chuck and the Three Frijolitos of Pleasants Valley 4-H Club, comprised of -Anna and Charlotte Kent and Sheridan Parks
- The Chili Dogs, Suisun Valley 4-H Club, comprised of Xavier Copeland, Christopher Lang, and Robert and Clairese Wright.
The Los Chileros used both pork and beef and fire-roasted peppers. Another addition was corn, for a southwestern-style chili.
Chuck and the Three Frijolitos' recipe opted for beef stew meat and three different kinds of beans: pinto, black and kidney.
The Chili Dogs' key ingredients were hot dogs and carrots. Each wore a t-shirt with an image and name of their family dog. They made biscuit-shaped rolls to accompany their chili.
The winning recipe:
Outdoor Cooking Project
By Fallon and Quincy Decious, and Brayden and Shaley Gish
Dixon Ridge 4-H Club, Countywide Outdoor Cooking Project
2 pounds of pork shoulder, cut in 1/2-inch chunks
2 pounds ground beef
Olive oil (as needed to brown meat)
2 cans of tomatoes, chopped or diced
2 cans of beans, one kidney and one pinto, drained
2 Pasilla peppers
2 Serrano peppers
2 Anaheim peppers
2 green bell peppers
2 cloves garlic
Water, approximately 1 cup
Seasonings to taste: Beef boullion, chili powder, ground cumin, garlic salt, black pepper, paprika
In a large stock pot, brown pork in the olive oil. Add the ground beef and continue cooking over high heat until beef is browned, about 30 minutes. Add the water and seasons. Cook an additional 30 minutes. Add tomatoes and beans. Turn down beef and simmer for 30 minutes. While mixture is simmering, coarsely chop onions and peppers and finely copped garlic. Add these to the pot and continue cooking until pork is tender, about another 30 to 45 minutes. Check flavor and add seasonings to taste. If needed, thicken chili with cornstarch.
Here's another recipe to try that the judges favored for the flavor:
By Randy Marley, Justin Means and Gracie O'Dell
Pleasants Valley 4-H Club, Vacaville
Three 15-ounce cans of tomatoes
One 15-ounce can of corn
One 15-ounce can of black beans
One 15-ounce can of kidney beans
One six-ounce can of tomato paste
2 green bell peppers
2 Pasilla peppers
1 to 2 jalapeno peppers, depending on taste
2 Anaheim peppers
1 to 4 stems of cilantro
3 pounds steak
A half pound of pork sausage
2 tablespoons chicken stock powder
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1 tablespoon garlic
4-ounce package of chili spices
Salt and pepper to taste
The ingredients "can be adjusted to suit your taste," they said.
Brown meat in a skillet and then put in crock pot. Cut vegetables and add to crock pot. Add spices and canned tomatoes and paste. Cook on high for six hours. Add the corn and beans the last 30 to 45 minutes.
The winning chili team at the 2015 Solano County 4-H Chili Cookoff is this group of Dixon Ridge 4-H Club members who are enrolled in the countywide Outdoor Cooking Project. From left are Quincy Decious, Fallon Decious, Shayley Gish and Braydon Gish. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
The Los Chilerios team from Pleasants Valley 4-H Club, Vacaville, made a very good chili at the Solano County 4-H Chili Cookoff, the judges agreed. From left are Justin Means, Randy Marley and Gracie O’Dell. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Discolored leaves. Decaying roots. Dead wood. Mother Nature offers a fascinating and colorful backdrop of clues to track microscopic killers. Much like any medical mystery, experts are called in to diagnose or identify a disease from its symptoms and recommend management strategies to prevent further damage or loss of healthy plants.
In the world of crop science mysteries, plant pathology solves the crime. The usual suspects include bacteria, fungi and viruses.
Humans and animals depend on plants for their food supply and ultimately for their survival. When diseases threaten crops, a high-quality, affordable food supply is placed at risk. For growers, plant diseases can reduce crop yields. For consumers, reduced crop yields can drive higher food prices. Plant pathology research holds enormous implications for a sustainable food supply.
Florent Trouillas, who was named UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Plant Pathology at UC Davis and the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center last year, explains the bottom line of most concern to growers.
"Once we identify a disease causal agent, a main question remains from growers. What growers really want to know is how to control the disease and prevent its spread to new healthy plants; they look to the University of California for solutions," Trouillas said.
A crisis in the food production system can impact other areas of society as well. In fact, history is filled with examples of how plant diseases influenced economies, environments and human societies.
Another historical illustration of plant pathology research occurred in the 1920s. The most common trees in the forests of the United States at the turn of the century were the majestic American chestnuts. The trees generated income for humans and the timber industry, served as a food source for people and animals, and provided habitat for wildlife. Then the trees started dying, until by the late 1920s, they had become the first tree in modern times on the brink of extinction. Plant pathologists were particularly adept at identifying plant diseases by this time and diagnosed the Cryphonectria parasitica fungus as the cause of the chestnut blight. By preventing the extinction of the pivotal species, plant pathology had a direct impact on the economy and the environment.
More recent major plant disease outbreaks in the United States involving plant pathology research have included Sudden Oak Death with devastating effects in California and Oregon forests, pitch canker killing California native pine species, and citrus canker in Florida, which has had a huge economic impact on the industry.
Veterinarians treat diseases in animals, physicians in humans. Trouillas describes the role of plant pathologists in similar terms. “We study the pathology of plant systems. Plant pathologists treat plants," he said.
Healthy plants ensure a sustainable food source and habitat for so many other organisms, including the human species.