At a session entitled “The University of California: Friend or Foe to Sustainable Agriculture” at this year’s Eco-Farm Conference, Tom Tomich of the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute reminded participants of how the California budget crisis may affect farming: With massive cuts to the University of California system expected, funding for agricultural research at its land-grant universities is in danger. The students and faculty doing GMO and pesticide research can secure funding from private companies, but researchers doing sustainable agriculture and food systems research are on shakier ground, says Tracy Lerman, a UC Davis graduate student and member of the Community Development Graduate Group. As an example, she cites the closure of the Small Farms Center as a result of state funding cuts to the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Lerman and her fiancé, Leon Vehaba, are helping to organize sessions at the 2011 Hazon Food Conference, which will be held at UC Davis this summer (August 18-21). The conference will showcase agriculture and food systems research taking place at UC Davis, which is the largest of the public land-grant universities in the state. In particular:
• A food systems panel will feature researchers at the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program who are exploring issues of farm-to-institution food sourcing and food system sustainability.
• Kids, families and adults will participate in hands-on farming activities at the UC Davis Student and Children’s Garden. A separate session for educators with the children’s garden manager will share tips and techniques for gardening education with youngsters.
• A tour of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Services will explore wine and beer fermentation for would-be brewers and enthusiastic consumers alike.
• A number of sessions will highlight animal research at UC Davis, which combines conventional and sustainable techniques. The dairy is doing research on feeds from discarded almond pulp and other plant matter discarded in human food processing. Frank Mittloehner and his colleagues are studying greenhouse gas emissions from animal feedlot operations. And the Meat Lab, an educational slaughterhouse, gives students the chance to learn animal biology, meat processing, butchering and packaging. (The animals slaughtered at the Meat Lab are sold onsite to the UC Davis faculty.) And a hands-on goat milking demonstration is in the works.
Understanding the connections among government spending, policies and agricultural research, and the effect of all of these on our food system (which in turn affect our health and our communities), is crucial to creating a healthier and more sustainable world. As Oran Hesterman (another UC grad, and author of Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All) puts it, we need to make the shift from being “conscious consumers” to “concerned citizens.” Thinking about where you buy your food and how you prepare it is an important first step. But understanding — and ultimately working to shape — the way universities like UC Davis (and the public and private funding that support it) affect our food system on a much larger level must come next.
For Lerman and Vehaba, bringing the Food Conference to UC Davis is a thrilling prospect. “I’m looking forward to instant community when everyone arrives,” Vehaba said. For Lerman, and for the conference organizers, a chance to share the important work going on at UC Davis with the Jewish food community is very exciting. “From my perspective in both the advocacy world and the research world, the people here at UC Davis are the ones doing really effective food systems research and not enough people know about them.”
Anna Hanau is the associate director of food programs at Hazon and co-wrote “Food for Thought, Hazon’s Sourcebook on Jews, Food and Contemporary Life.” She and her husband, Naf Hanau, founded a kosher pastured meat business called Grow and Behold Foods in summer 2010, and she keeps a flock of chickens in her backyard in Brooklyn.