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Agroecology, internationally and at home

For many years, a key international strategy to ending hunger has been to grow more food: push for higher yields, develop ways for farmers to intensify their farming, focus on technologies that drive both. But that focus may be shifting towards another strategy that better accounts for the environment and human well-being – agroecology.

Barbara Gemill-Herren, a retired officer from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, spoke recently at UC Davis of the ongoing process at the United Nations to determine an international strategy for agricultural development.

For many, a new paradigm needs to strike a balance between supporting small-scale farmers, supporting healthy ecosystems, and bringing in the technology that can help meet changing challenges for growers.

Agroecology has recently entered the vocabulary at the UN as a potential unifying principle for agricultural development.

As its name suggests, agroecology studies the ecology of the entire food system, focusing on environmental, economic and social dimensions and how they interact with one another.

Beyond that definition, the term is used and understood differently by different groups. For some, agroecology is a scientific discipline, for some it represents a way for farms to be managed. For others, it is a social movement that brings local and indigenous knowledge to the center of agricultural development.

At the United Nations meetings on agroecology, each of these interpretations of agroecology have been on the table for discussion — how they can be used to improve international agricultural development will be revealed in global conversations in the years to come.

Agroecology endowment at UC Davis secures research opportunities

Here at home, agroecology is on the upswing as well. Funding for a $1 million endowment in agroecology was recently secured at UC Davis to help fund the research, education, and outreach conducted by an agroecology faculty member. Collaborating with UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors from UC Agriculture and Natural Resources will be a key way for future work to connect with growers. 

Endowments offer reliable funding every year that allow faculty to plan longer term research. For research like agroecology that looks at how agricultural systems function, that flexibility is important, if not essential.

Tom Tomich, director of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute, which helped raise funds for the endowment, says, “The endowment represents at a broad spectrum of philanthropists and shows that scientific approaches to agroecological systems science is appreciated by our stakeholders in California. It's a form of legitimization of systems science applied to agriculture.”

Opportunities for collaboration between researchers and farmers

Amélie Gaudin, assistant professor of agroecology at UC Davis.
For Amélie Gaudin, assistant professor of Agroecology at UC Davis, agroecology is on a promising path toward sustainability for California agriculture. Gaudin started working at UC Davis in 2015 and is building her research and community relationships.

Below are some thoughts from Gaudin on how she approaches her work and how she sees this agroecology endowment impacting research and education at UC Davis.

How do you define agroecology?

There are different definitions of agroecology for different people. Mostly I see it as research to understand dynamics of ecological processes and to apply ecology to agricultural systems design. Agroecology merges the food security and production goals of agriculture with resource use efficiency goals and environmental goals in agriculture. For many people, agroecology is a social movement to make systems socially just. While my focus is largely on biological processes, it's also about learning from small-scale farmers who have been successful in their management practices to see how we can translate those successes to other contexts. And that is very social in nature.

At what scale do you research?

Usually we tend to work at the field scale, looking at cropping systems and the landscapes that surround them. Looking at the field, we can see how the long term management of a farm has affected the soil and its functioning as well as productivity and provision of multiple other ecosystem services. Looking at the surrounding landscape, we can understand what the natural environment has provided to the farm system, and what the farm system provides back to the natural environment. Sometimes we look a meter out, sometimes a kilometer out.

But beyond just the space we look at, we're really looking at time. Nature takes time. When you look at the field, it's an observation of what has been going on there for a very long time.

How does agroecology research work with farmers?

Working with farmers helps give research the long-term lens and management gradients we need to understand these agricultural systems, and gives us a landscape lens that many research fields can't provide. It also helps relate our research to production constraints that farmers have.

There is also tremendous innovation in what farmers are coming up with. They have a specific problem and they usually have tried specific solutions. They test things out, they monitor their fields and see results, but maybe don't understand fully the underlying mechanism and potential impact on the environment. We try to get to the why; we try to connect the dots to enable scaling up and better understanding of the ecological processes regulating resource use efficiency.

We're also looking a lot at resilience to stresses. And we find more and more interest in this because resources are not plentiful anymore and we now have to produce more with less. So how do we build resilience to the multiple stresses that come along? Are there ways that the management of a farm can impact productivity when a stress like drought occurs?

We have a lot to learn from small growers and a lot to learn from growers who have constrained resources about what they have been implementing and experimenting with. How can we transfer those practices to different environments? How can we scale them up?

How can we make it work in large-scale agriculture? There's a huge opportunity there. I want to see agroecological approaches to management implemented all over the Midwest, all over the Central Valley. I think agroecology is compatible with large-scale agriculture and critically needed.

How do you approach research questions?

I start with the problems a farmer didn't have. One project started with a tomato farmer who didn't have the same insect problem that surrounding farms had. So we ask, what is he doing that created this insect resistance, and how can that be used by other farmers? We met with several different farmers to discuss the issue, and wrote a grant to investigate specific hypothesis across a management gradient.

We're now working with five different growers and using Russell Ranch, our long-term agricultural research facility, as a benchmark.

I think conversation with farmers and their advisors is critical to develop relevant research questions and alternatives which have conservation of natural resources, biodiversity and provision of ecosystem services as a basis for improvement. It is also important to keep a positive feedback loop and bring results back to the community to foster farmer-to-farmer knowledge transfer.

What excites you about this new investment in agroecology?

The context of agriculture is changing and we now have a tremendous opportunity to promote agroecology as a viable and necessary strategy to build the sustainability and resilience of our agriculture. Farmers are seeking solutions, they are aware and interested. With climate change and depleted resources becoming more of a reality, growers are interested in putting soil improvement and ecological principles back into their management framework. And I think we ultimately care about the same things, we just need to find common ground and start speaking the same language. To do it we have to be open minded, both on the researcher and farmer side.

Investment in agroecology will help us reach this objective and gives us an opportunity to think outside of the box. This gives an opportunity to be creative, cope with some of the pitfalls of science funding and take a participatory approach to interdisciplinary research to design holistic solutions that better use nature for a sustainable agriculture.

Posted on Wednesday, April 6, 2016 at 8:35 AM

How one farmer’s invention is reducing postharvest losses around the world

In many developing countries, more than half of all fruits and vegetables are never eaten, but instead are lost, damaged or spoiled after harvest. These “postharvest” losses can mean that farmers need to sell their fresh produce as soon as it is harvested for whatever price they can get, before they lose the crops that represent investments of labor, water, and agricultural inputs. Improving how fruits and vegetables are handled after harvest can significantly prolong freshness — and cooling is key.

“The three most important aspects of postharvest handling are: temperature, temperature, temperature,” said Michael Reid, UC Cooperative Extension postharvest specialist who works with the Horticulture Innovation Lab at UC Davis. “In the developing world in particular, affordable cooling technology is mostly absent.”

Cooling can be expensive — even for American farmers 

As a farmer in upstate New York, Ron Khosla knew this problem too well. His vegetable crop was spoiling too quickly, but he could not afford to buy a walk-in cooler for his small farm. So he invented a solution: a small electrical device he called a CoolBot that tricks an air conditioner into getting colder without freezing over, turning a well-insulated room into a cold room at lower costs than refrigeration. 

“I was hoping for a cheap, DIY solution that I could maintain. But mostly I just needed to keep my leafy greens and strawberries cold,” Khosla said. 

The CoolBot tricks an air conditioner into getting even colder, seen here keeping vegetables fresh in Cambodia, as part of a project with the Horticulture Innovation Lab.
One of his farming customers suggested he sell this device to other farmers, so he started a small business called Store It Cold, LLC. 

Khosla's CoolBot invention caught the eye of postharvest researchers, including Reid, who saw it in action on farms in California and decided to try using it in developing countries too.

CoolBot goes global with the Horticulture Innovation Lab

In one of his first projects with the Horticulture Innovation Lab (a program led by UC Davis with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development), Reid partnered with agricultural scientists from Uganda, Honduras and India to test the CoolBot in their climates. The four scientists also tested different local materials as insulation for each of the cold rooms.

Since that first project, the Horticulture Innovation Lab has tested CoolBots for farmer cold storage in Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda, Thailand, Cambodia, Bangladesh, India and Honduras. 

Jane Ambuko of the University of Nairobi is another Horticulture Innovation Lab partner who has worked with the CoolBot. She received a grant to pilot this technology with mango farmers for a program called the Kenya Feed the Future Innovation Engine. Her project was featured on an NTV Food Friday news segment about the CoolBot earlier this month.

“I see the CoolBot making a whole lot of difference,” Ambuko said during a TEDxNairobi speech. “But for it to make that desired difference we have to make it cost-effective and affordable for the smallholder farmers.”

Adapting, troubleshooting and scaling up

In many places, the most expensive part of a CoolBot-equipped cold room is the structure for the insulated room, but both Reid and Khosla expect foam building materials to become more widely available and affordable.

From left, farmers Pak Ry and Brap Yart carry a bin of sponge gourd and banana leaves into a CoolBot-equipped cold room in Cambodia, to keep the produce fresh before sale. (Horticulture Innovation Lab photo)
Reid has contacted Khosla, the farmer-inventor, to troubleshoot challenges and discuss results from new locations. In places without reliable electricity, Reid has tested options for solar power.

In the meantime, Khosla's small business has been growing — selling to not only farmers, but also florists, micro-brewers, and other artisanal food businesses. Now with six employees, the company has sold more than 27,500 CoolBots in 51 countries.

“I'm thrilled and so grateful to be a part of helping lots of people. Working with USAID has gotten us known in other countries, and I'm looking forward to the day when we have enough in-roads in India and Africa where we can work directly with farmers there,” Khosla said. “People didn't believe the CoolBots worked at first. But now we get the most amazing letters from people whose businesses have doubled or quadrupled. Good postharvest care makes such a difference. Once they try it, then they see.”

A previous version of this article appeared in the newsletter for Feed the Future, the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative, and also in the Horticulture Innovation Lab blog.

Event - Sustainable solutions and extending California's agricultural expertise to the world: The UC Global Food Initiative and UC Blum Centers will host a Global Food Summit on Sustainable Solutions, May 5-6 at UC Irvine. Elizabeth Mitcham, director of the Horticulture Innovation Lab and UC Cooperative Extension postharvest pomologist at UC Davis, will be speaking about technology transfer for horticulture-related technologies such as the CoolBot, seed drying beads, UC Davis-designed chimney solar dryer, pest-exclusion nets, and other tools the program adapts to the needs of farmers in developing countries. She will also be on a panel with two other UC Davis-based directors of Feed the Future Innovation Labs (UC Davis leads five Feed the Future Innovation Labs with funding from USAID — more than any other university). More info about this event.

Posted on Wednesday, March 30, 2016 at 8:55 AM

California food choices won’t save much drought water, researchers find

Can you help fight the California drought by consuming only foods and beverages that require minimal water to produce?

One cup of lettuce uses only one gallon of drought water. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)
Well, as the old saying goes, the devil is in the details. In a recently published paper, Daniel Sumner, director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center at UC Davis, and research assistant Nina M. Anderson mine the details of this issue to help us all better understand just what impact our food choices can have on conserving California's precious water.

To begin with, not all water drops are equal because not all water uses impact California's drought, the researchers explain.

Drought-relevant water

So just what water does qualify as California drought-relevant water? You can definitely count surface water and groundwater used for agricultural irrigation as well as water used for urban purposes, including industrial, commercial and household uses.

And here are a few examples of what water is not relevant to California's drought:

Rain that falls on un-irrigated California pastureland is not relevant to California's drought.
-- Water used in another state to grow animal feed that is consumed by California livestock;

-- Water used in another state to produce young livestock that are later shipped to California for food production; and

-- Rain that falls on un-irrigated California pastureland. (Studies show that non-irrigated, grazed pastures actually release more water into streams and rivers than do un-grazed pastures, the researchers say.)

In short, California's drought-relevant water includes all irrigation water, but excludes rainfall on non-irrigated California pastures as well as any water that actually came from out-of-state sources and wound up in livestock feeds or young livestock eventually imported by California farmers and ranchers.

Also, the amount of water that soaks back into the ground following crop irrigation doesn't count – and that amount can be quantified for each crop.

Comparing water use for various foods

I think you're getting the picture; this water-for-food analysis is complicated. For this paper, the researchers examined five plant-based and two animal-based food products: almonds, wine, tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce, milk and beef steak.

In teasing out the accurate amount of water that can be attributed to each food, the researchers first calculated how much water must be applied to grow a serving of each crop or animal product. Then they backed off the amount of water that is not California drought-relevant water, arriving at a second figure for the amount of drought-relevant water used for each food.

They provide a terrific graph (Fig. 3) that makes this all quite clear, comparing total applied water with California drought-relevant water used for the seven food products.

Milk and steak top the chart in total water use, with 1 cup of milk requiring 68 total gallons of water and a 3-ounce steak requiring 883.5 total gallons of water.

But when only California drought-relevant water is considered, one cup of milk is shown to be using 22 gallons of water and that 3-oz steak is using just 10.5 gallons of water. (Remember, to accurately assess California drought-water usage, we had to back off rainwater on non-irrigated pastures and water applied out of state to raise young livestock or feed that eventually would be imported by California producers.)

“Remarkably, a serving of steak uses much less water than a serving of almonds, or a glass of milk or wine, and about the same as a serving of broccoli or stewed tomatoes,” write Sumner and Anderson.

Still skeptical? Check out their paper in the January-February issue of the “Update” newsletter of the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at

Bon appetit!

Posted on Tuesday, March 22, 2016 at 4:45 PM

A spotlight on sorghum

A rainbow of sorghum varieties. (Photo: Roy Kaltschmidt)
Sorghum might just be one of the most interesting foods you aren't yet eating. This ancient cereal crop is the fifth most important cereal crop in the world, according to the Whole Grains Council. It's a popular food crop in Africa and parts of Asia, yet in the United States, sorghum has been more commonly used for feeding livestock. But that situation may be poised to change, as more chefs and farmers reconsider this ancient food, which is gluten-free, high-fiber and rich in nutrients.

Drought tolerant crop

To learn more about sorghum, we started with one of the nation's leading experts on the crop – Jeff Dahlberg, director of University of California's Kearney Agricultural Research Center in Parlier, CA. Jeff previously served as the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) curator for sorghum. He was research director for the National Sorghum Producers and the United Sorghum Checkoff Program. In 2011, Jeff was recipient of National Sorghum Producers' Outstanding Achievement Award. In other words, he knows his sorghum.

Jeff Dahlberg
The UC researcher tells us this ancient cereal crop can be grown on roughly 85 percent of the arable land available to agriculture.

“The versatility of sorghum allows it to be used in a wide range of food, feed and bioenergy products,” Dahlberg said. “The plant has inherent drought tolerance and can thrive in growing conditions that would seem too harsh for other crops. With more research and outreach, sorghum could be an extremely valuable crop for helping to feed the world in the future as we deal with limited inputs and water.”

Dahlberg first became interested in sorghum as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, a land-locked African country that consistently is one of the lowest-ranked in the United Nations' Human Development Index (HDI).

“Niger's farmers relied on rainfall to produce their major staples and sorghum was a crop that did well under limited rainfall,” Dahlberg said. “The crop was extremely versatile in that the grain was used for human food production, the leaves were harvested for animal feed and the stalks, many of which could be as tall as 12 feet, were used as building material. The versatility and the toughness of the crop got me interested in researching what made this crop work.”

For an interesting look at why farmers are considering sorghum, Dan Charles reports for NPR.

Delicious, nutritious food

What has Dahlberg most excited about sorghum is it's potential as a drought-tolerant human food crop.

“Sorghum has real potential as a healthy, low-cost cereal crop for the gluten-free market, but also as an Old World cereal that can be blended with other flours and used in unique breads," he said. “Sorghum doesn't have gluten, so you can't use it for nice leavened breads, but you can use sorghum to make nice biscuits, flat breads, quick breads, cakes, cookies, brownies and pancakes.

Sorghum should be thought of as whole grain flour that has a neutral color, little taste and unique cooking characteristics. Dahlberg admits his favorite way to eat this grain is as a brownie made with sorghum flour, but he says the plant “can be extruded to produce excellent snack and cereal products. It can be popped like popcorn, flaked and otherwise processed like other cereals.”

Sorghum syrup is a well-known sorghum product. (Photo: Tony Monica)
Recipes and nutrition

To find delicious ways to enjoy sorghum, we went in search of some good recipes.

These five ways to eat sorghum from thekitchn got us thinking. Why not use sorghum instead of rice for a change in salads? Also, the Mexican sorghum bowl looks delicious.

More fun serving ideas can be found at American Sorghum's page. Did you know there are now sorghum beers?

We also have our eye on this sorghum salad from Whole Grains Council; it includes oregano, feta cheese and pine nuts.

Sorghum syrup is an old-fashioned Southern favorite. As Sherry Leverich Tucker explains in this interesting Mother Earth News article, this sweet, dark, heavy syrup is made by cooking the juice squeezed from the sorghum cane. Just don't call it molasses, which is derived only from the process of making cane sugar. But do use sorghum as you would molasses in recipes. For ideas, consider these recipes from Southern Living. Beef ribs with sorghum glaze, anyone?

It's healthy: Medical Daily reports, “Sorghum has high nutritional value, with high levels of unsaturated fats, protein, fiber and minerals like phosphorus, potassium, calcium and iron. It also has more antioxidants than blueberries and pomegranates.”

In an old episode of the television show Cheers, the protagonist Sam Malone says, “I didn't say I wanted sorghum, I said I wanted some more gum.”

We think if Sam Malone had actually tried sorghum, he would have preferred it over gum.

Today's post is contributed by Teresa O'Connor, assistant editor of the UC Food Observer. The UC Food Observer is edited by ANR's Rose Hayden-Smith. For policy wonks to the public at large, the UC Food Observer is your daily selection of must-read news from the world of food and agriculture, developed by the University of California as part of the UC Global Food Initiative. The UC Food Observer blog and related social media channels aim to highlight important news and add value to the varied discussions occurring about how to sustainably and nutritiously feed the world. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Posted on Wednesday, March 16, 2016 at 11:34 AM

Twenty questions that can predict obesity

Eating vegetables at meals and snacks helps indicate whether a child is at risk for obesity.
By asking 20 simple questions about family eating habits, health professionals can help predict the likelihood that young children will become overweight or obese in the future, according to research by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) scientists.

This knowledge allows professionals to quickly identify where interventions are needed to change behaviors before the children end up with chronic diseases caused by an unhealthy trajectory of weight gain.

The project was a collaborative effort involving the nutrition science laboratory of Marilyn Townsend, UC Cooperative Extension specialist based at UC Davis, and UC Cooperative Extension's Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program educators. Funding was provided by grants from USDA and UC ANR.

The 20 questions came from a much longer Healthy Kids survey. In creating the survey, the scientists focused on young children in low-income families, which are disproportionately affected by the obesity crisis. The USDA is troubled by statistics that show that, over the last three decades, the rate of overweight and obesity has risen consistently.

The Healthy Kids 20 key questions includes a query about playing outside.
Organizations that work with low-income families are eager to determine which families need help to modify their at-home eating practices to ensure a healthier outcome for the children. The wording of the initial versions of survey questions were identified by poring over dozens of peer-reviewed published research reports. Townsend and her staff then conducted numerous interviews with parents to reword questions so that those with literacy issues could understand the meaning as researchers intended.

“Parents have control over the children's environments. They buy the food and serve it. We looked at what parents are doing that might be impacting obesity,” Townsend said.

The researchers identified 23 dietary decisions that parents were making that seemed to contribute to their children's weight gain. The researchers then wrote 48 questions to gauge the 23 behaviors.

Developing an effective questionnaire involved extensive research and testing. Ultimately, the most effective format included pictures that looked like family snapshots, not stock photos, simple language and multiple choice questions. The survey was made available online to agencies that work with low-income families. It works, but it's long.

Streamlining the survey became the Townsend lab's next order of business.

Working with UCCE nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisors, the team recruited 170 children between 2 and 5 years old and their parents. They measured the children's height and weight and took blood samples at three times during the four-year study. The parents also completed the 48-question survey.

“By tracking height and weight, and comparing the changes over time, we got a clear picture which children were on an excessive weight gain trajectory,” Townsend said. “With the blood samples, we were able to look for biomarkers that are indicative of inflammation, which are related to choices in the family environment.”

Using sophisticated statistical analysis, the scientists were able to identify the 20 questions that were most indicative of unhealthful weight gain and higher incidence of biomarkers that indicated low grade inflammation in the children's blood.



The 20 questions are:

  1. What time does your child go to bed at night?
  2. How often does your child eat vegetables?
  3. How often does your child eat fruit?
  4. How often does he or she drink milk?
  5. What type of milk does she or he drink, whole, reduced fat, low fat, skim milk or soy?
  6. How often does the parent buy vegetables – rarely, sometimes, always, etc.?
  7. How often does the parent buy fruit?
  8. How often is fruit available ready for the child to eat?
  9. How many hours a day does the child watch TV?
  10. How often does the child snack on foods like apples, bananas or carrots?
  11. How often does the child eat vegetables at breakfast, lunch and dinner?
  12. How many kinds of vegetables does the child eat each day?
  13. How many hours a day does the child play video or computer games?
  14. How many times per day does he or she eat candy, cake or cookies?
  15. How often – every day, most days, some days, etc. – does the child drink soda?
  16. How many times per day does she or he drink sports drinks or sugared drinks? One to five or more?
  17. How many times per day does the child eat chips?
  18. How many times per week does the family eat fried foods?
  19. Does the parent regularly trim the fat off meat before eating?
  20. How often does the parent play outside with the child each week?


Posted on Monday, March 14, 2016 at 8:33 AM

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