UC Davis Today

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.

Photo: Vineyard on a hill with colorful sky

Mike Levy’s research focuses on viticulture environmental practices and certifications. (Thinkstock photo)

Sustainability for California grape growers

By Michael Levy, Environmental Policy and Behavior

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.

  • View of the top of a freight train with several men looking over

    Ixtepec, Oaxaca, southern Mexico: Immigrants from Central America travel north, most to the United States, but some will find work in Mexico along the way. (Diane Charlton/photo)

  • View of the top of a freight train with several men looking over

    Mexico is in a transitional phase where it exports farm labor to the United States while simultaneously importing farm labor from Central America. (Diane Charlton/photo)

  • Two people walking down a dirt road with banana grove on the right

    Bananas grow in Caristay, Veracruz, eastern Mexico. The Veracruz economy depends largely on petroleum and agriculture. (Diane Charlton/photo)

  • Female vendor standing behind well-ordered arrangements of vegetables at a market

    In Oaxaca, a woman sells fruits and vegetables at one of the local produce markets in the city. (Diane Charlton/photo)

  • Field of corn

    Most residents in the Oaxacan sierra grow corn and beans along with fruits and vegetables. (Diane Charlton/photo)

  • View of an old church bell, looking down on a village

    Most residents in the southern Mexican sierra are farmers. Many families have members who migrated to the U.S. or to the city to work. (Diane Charlton/photo)

  • Three children in a field with buckets staring into the camera

    Children harvest limes in a rural town in Oaxaca. How will improved access to schools affect children's decisions to work on family farms or to migrate to urban areas? (Diane Charlton/photo)

The future of migrant farmworkers

By Diane Charlton, Agricultural 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.

  • A group of African men standing in front of a building with one white woman

    Through her research, graduate student Melissa Schweisguth, third from left, hopes to raise the livelihoods of farmers like these in Côte d’Ivoire. (Niava Landry/photo)

  • A sign in French with symbols, in front of a building

    This cacao cooperative sign in Côte d’Ivoire shows logos for Fairtrade and Utz certifications, and a statement against child labor. (Melissa Schweisguth/photo)

  • Two African men sitting in a grove of trees

    For Melissa’s research, surveyors interviewed 300 cacao farmers about costs, income, yields, farming practices, markets, training and perceptions of well-being. (Melissa Schweisguth/photo)

  • A cacao tree in a grove of trees

    Cacao beans, the primary ingredient in chocolate, grow inside pods on cacao trees. (Melissa Schweisguth/photo)

  • A nursery of seedlings with larger trees around it

    Some farmers raise cacao seedlings, which must be protected with a shade canopy. (Melissa Schweisguth/photo)

  • A large pod with white seeds inside

    This fresh cacao pod shows sweet pulp surrounding the beans. Beans and pulp are fermented to develop cacao's flavor. (Melissa Schweisguth/photo)

  • A raised frame of sticks spread with brown drying cacao beans

    After fermentation, cacao beans are dried in the sun, (Melissa Schweisguth/photo)

  • A large sheet of cacao beans on the ground in an African Village

    Cacao is a major source of income in rural communities in Côte d'Ivoire's cacao regions (Melissa Schweisguth/photo)

Sustainable cacao: Does certification pay?

By Melissa Schweisguth, International 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.

  • Two women planting at the back of a farm machine in a bare field

    Graduate student Sarah Dohle and Antonia Palkovic, assistant specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences, plant lima beans and add bacterial inoculum. (Darshan Dohle/photo)

  • Woman standing in bare field with clipboard

    For her research, Dohle records germination counts for about 300 different types of lima beans in an experimental field. (Jorge Berney/photo)

  • People in a field bending over into rows of plants

    The bean team counts plant germinations on a farmer’s property in Westley, Calif. (Sarah Dohle/photo)

  • Woman walking away in a field holding a large net

    Field assistant Laura Gamiño collects lygus bugs to evaluate insect pressure and find resistant beans. (Sarah Dohle/photo)

  • Woman holding a big plant, root on top

    Dohle (foreground) works with Phil Roberts (center background) from UC Riverside and undergraduate Saarah Kuzay to phenotype nematode damage on roots. (Antonia Palkovic/photo)

  • Field workers in a harvested field with a big farm machine in the background

    Many work on harvesting at the UC Davis bean “lab,” including graduate students, Professor Paul Gepts and the field crew. (Sarah Dohle/photo)

  • Sunrise, backlit photo of a woman walking away through a row of beans

    Palkovic cuts beans at dawn while they are still wet with dew. (Sarah Dohle/photo)

  • Four people standing in a field with a big harvester in the background

    Another field season is wrapped up by Dohle, Palkovic, Gamiño and two summer crew members at UC Davis. (Sarah Dohle/photo)

  • Seven men and women standing in a bare field

    Past and present bean lab members: Jorge Berney, Sarah Dohle, Paige Hamilton, Saarah Kuzay, Jan Lim, Katherine Grazier, Paul Gepts. (Sarah Dohle/photo)

Lima beans: ‘poster’ plant for sustainability

By Sarah Dohle, Plant 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.


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