Sustainable agriculture and food systems: An innovative new major at UC Davis
Two terms related to food production — “sustainability” and “food systems” — have been blended into a new major at the University of California, Davis. Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems, the new undergraduate major, in some ways embodies a re-blossomed, student-driven interest in food production, akin to the organic farming movement of the 1970s.
Food systems is a broad term that addresses nutrition and health, sustainable agriculture, and community development. A food system encompasses the entire production chain, not only from farm to fork, but includes broader topics such as short- and long-term impacts on the environment, labor, management of food inputs (e.g., water, pesticides) and outputs (e.g., waste), and the socioeconomic impacts on communities engaged in the food system. In other words, food systems encompasses agricultural production within the broad context of environmental, economic, social, and political concerns.
Neal Van Alfen, dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis, noted during the celebration ceremony for the new major, “Agriculture is incredibly knowledge intensive. It is as knowledge intensive as launching rockets.” He cited a terrarium as a model for how we must maintain a sustainable food production system with limited resources to feed a rapidly growing global population. “The planet is a closed system,” Van Alfen said. “We have to get it right.”
Professor Tom Tomich, master adviser for the major and director of the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute, said, “The major is about leadership, as much as it is about education. It’s about creating a new generation of leaders who will go on to guide the sustainability transformation for this country and for this planet.” Unlike student programs that are limited to classroom learning, Tomich said that the curriculum for the new major combines the best of three worlds — classroom and labs, the Student Farm, and the real world.
Karen Ross, Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, attended the opening, along with other high-level state leaders in agriculture, including Craig McNamara, president of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture, and Don Bransford, president of the UC President’s Advisory Commission on Agriculture and Natural Resources.
UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi, who spoke about UC Davis’s national leadership in sustainability, noted, “This leadership from the state shows the importance of the program and what impact it may have on the state, on us as an institution, and on our students.”
“Agriculture and food have shaped human civilization and are central to well-being and health,” said Ralph Hexter, provost of UC Davis. “We recognize the need to understand both the natural world and our human activities holistically.” Addressing the global significance of the major, Hexter added, “Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems is a major that is truly designed for the 21st century. It responds to today’s needs and incorporates experiential learning and state-of-the-art research.”
A recent UC Davis graduate who helped lay the groundwork for the curriculum, Maggie Lickter, spoke passionately to the 200 people celebrating the major. She said that the major is driven largely by students who have cutting-edge ideas and want to be engaged in creating a useful education. Lickter said that many students felt that components were missing from the traditional agricultural curriculum, such as farming practices grounded in an understanding of ecological systems, and the application of critical thinking skills to modern-day food systems.
In a moving tribute to the success of establishing the major, Lickter said, “This work can’t stop. If you stop stoking romance, love dissolves. If you stop tending a garden, plants wither. So we must stay committed to the evolution of this major.”
Dean Van Alfen, a strong proponent of UC Davis partnerships with the California agriculture industry, views this major as an additional way to create graduates with industry-ready work skills. Addressing UC Davis’s national and global leadership in agriculture, he said, “Agricultural sustainability has been a theme of this campus for a very long time. This new interdisciplinary major is the future in so many ways. It reflects our campus spirit and our culture. It will meet the needs of our stakeholders and the future of our planet.”
For more information:
- UC Green Blog
- Early press release
- UC Davis Student Farm
- UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute
- About the major