“So we’ve got strawberries right here,” says Fortino Morales III, gripping a garden hoe. “The irises are down. Kale. That’s red cabbage. Here, we’ve got cauliflower or broccoli — we’ll know pretty soon.”
Stepping past rows of green sprouts budding from a vast expanse of soil, Morales stops at a box of leek seedlings, which he and a group of interns are planting today. He lifts one out of its square compartment, examines it in the sunlight and uncurls the white roots with his fingers, bits of excess dirt falling to the ground.
“One of the reasons why I’m really drawn to the garden is because it’s tangible,” says Morales, who comes from a family of growers. “And at the end of the season, you’re able to feed others.”
A 2011 graduate of UCR, Morales is the coordinator of R’Garden, the campus’ three-acre community garden where students, faculty, staff and community members can harvest fresh produce while learning about sustainable food systems — and cultivate broader solutions.
Here in this space, and across the university, a movement grows.
UCR is part of the University of California Global Food Initiative, a UC system-wide quest to address the myriad of food issues confronting the world, including food availability, security, sustainability and nutrition. The initiative, launched earlier this year by UC President Janet Napolitano and UC’s 10 chancellors, comes at a critical time. By the year 2025, the world’s population is expected to reach eight billion. Yet already, 1 billion people suffer from chronic hunger or serious nutritional deficiencies. Roughly the same number of people are obese. UC, which has played a major role in helping California become the agricultural powerhouse of the nation, aims to be a leader in global food arena.
Riverside is a key engine in the initiative. Its roots in food and agricultural research run deep. Ever wonder why you can bite into a juicy citrus fruit virtually all year long instead of only during its natural winter season? Thank UCR scientists, who discovered chemicals that slow the aging of the fruit. Need rice that can survive a monsoon flood? No problem. They’ve helped make that a reality, too. What about weapons to protect California against the Asian citrus psyllid, a pest that could devastate the state’s citrus industry? Yep. UCR experts are fighting them. Could another potato famine be in our future? It’s possible, and UCR scientists are studying ways to address the threat.
Research to Create a Well-Fed World
Giving plants strength to carry on
Professor of Genetics
Associate Professor of Plant Cell Biology and Chemistry
Natural disasters can wipe out crops that humans have been growing for millennia. What plants need are better coping skills.
Julia Bailey-Serres’ specialty is rice. She and her team of geneticists were involved in the identification of SUB1A, a gene that enables rice plants to survive complete submergence, which can happen during catastrophic flooding. The breakthrough resulted in Swarna-Sub1, a flood-tolerant rice variety developed by the International Rice Research Institute. Today more than 10 million farmers grow this variety. (In the fields of Bangladesh and India, one farmer’s wife told the researchers that the rice was growing even though it had been underwater for 15 days.)
Sean Cutler and his team of plant cell biologists discovered a way to supercharge the reaction of abseisic acid (ABA), plants’ naturally occurring stress hormone that helps them survive extreme conditions, particularly drought. After searching through many thousands of molecules to identify inexpensive synthetic chemicals that could mimic ABA, they came across one they named quinabactin, a molecule that’s nearly indistinguishable from ABA in its effects, but much simpler chemically and therefore easier to make.
“Discovering the full complement of plant hormones and understanding how they work is a very big goal that will have a tremendous impact on agriculture,” Cutler says.
Saving California’s citrus
Every year California’s diverse ecosystem is invaded by new, often-destructive species of exotic pests, resulting in annual economic losses of more than $3 billion. The central San Joaquin Valley is home to 75 percent of California’s commercial citrus; that’s where Professor Elizabeth Grafton-Cardwell is working to develop effective methods of keeping pest populations under control. “I study the life cycles of pests and how to sample for them, I figure out how to preserve and boost their natural enemies and I learn how to utilize pesticides in ways that minimize their use,” Grafton-Cardwell says. By minimizing fruit damage, growers can provide affordable, healthy fruit to consumers.
Grafton-Cardwell’s goal is to keep the citrus pests under control with as few pesticides as possible, and to rapidly develop methods of identifying, monitoring and controlling new pests as they are introduced into California. Grafton-Cardwell is stationed at the Kearney Agricultural Center; she is the director of the Lindcove Research and Extension Center where she is in the heart of the citrus-producing area of California. She says, “These center locations help my research program to rapidly respond to grower needs and allow me to extend the information to the citrus growers in their own orchards.”
Helping wheat develop drought tolerance
J. Giles Waines
Professor of Genetics
J. Giles Waines’ lab helps to solve food production issues in drought-stressed areas, including California, Mexico and many areas in Africa, Asia and Australia. To do so, the team gets down to the roots.
“During the last 150 years of scientific research, most plant science had concentrated on the above-ground parts of the crop plant, including stems, leaves, flowers and fruits,” Waines says. “There was relatively little research on below-ground root characters.”
But that’s changing. His research group found evidence that increasing the size of the wheat root system helped to increase grain yield in fields at the UCR Moreno Valley Station and at other locations in California by 5 to 10 percent. The discovery may allow more crops to be grown on the same amount — or even less — of water. A bonus: Wheat with a larger root system leaves less nitrogen in the drain-water that flows from the field, reducing nitrate pollution, a problem in California agriculture.
The group now aims to determine the optimum size for the wheat root system to maximize grain yield.
Tackling late blight
Professor of Plant Pathology
The Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century led to the death of 1 million people on land and hundreds of thousands more who tried to escape on boats to find food elsewhere. A major culprit of epic agricultural disaster? Late blight, a plant disease that still exists — and still wreaks havoc on the world’s crops — even today.
Howard Judelson and his team are researching the biology and genetics of the fungus-like pathogens known as oomycetes, such as Phytophthora infestans, the species that causes late blight of tomatoes and potatoes. His lab uses gene transfer tools it pioneered and other approaches to study the pathogen’s life cycle, seeking better strategies for battling such diseases. Recently, the team has been helping a group in the United Kingdom develop potato cultivars resistant to late blight. Judelson also directs USAblight.org, a website that allows researchers nationwide to report late blight outbreaks and track them on maps.
Judelson believes most people don’t realize how much of a threat pathogens pose to food production, and it’s important to bring together the whole community to help defeat them. “We are lucky to have an inexpensive and ample food supply, but a devastating disease can always be just around the corner,” he says.
Developing affordable crop biosensors
Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering
In developing areas such as sub-Saharan Africa, farmers can’t afford to buy costly fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides to protect their source of food and income. They need a way to quickly identify and segregate infected plants in order to minimize a loss of harvest.
Hideaki Tsutsui’s lab develops low-cost tools and technology to fabricate biosensors on plant leaves. Through funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE), they’re developing and testing an easy-to-read sensor — one that works similarly to a pregnancy test — to use on the leaves of crops such as corn, rice and cassava. When plants are in danger, the sensor changes color. Researchers hope to use the sensor to monitor plant disease, health and nutrition contents.
The team has been developing the sensor technology using a model plant and a mock biomarker in the laboratory. The next step is to test it using a food crop and a plant pathogen in collaboration with plant pathologists.
Breaking the poverty cycle among rural farmers
Steven M. Helfand
Professor of Economics
In recent decades, Brazil has become one of the largest agricultural powerhouses in the world. And yet in the semiarid northeastern region, farmers are still under the weight of extreme poverty, passed on from generation to generation.
Steven M. Helfand is evaluating a project that aims to breaks the cycle. In 2013, the economist was awarded a $70,000 grant by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) of the United Nations to analyze how well cash-transfer programs work with rural development programs, such as one created by the IFAD.
Cash-transfer programs emerged in Latin America in the 1990s, providing small stipends to families. Conditions typically stipulate that children must attend school and receive vaccinations. IFAD’s Community Development Project for the Gavião River Region (PROGAVIÃO) was launched to increase incomes and improve living conditions of residents of the Gavião River basin through environmentally sustainable development. For instance, a 16,000-liter cistern can provide a family with enough water to survive a drought for one year.
Helfand is leading a team that will investigate whether poverty can be increasingly diminished when such programs work together.
On campus, students have participated in a wide array of courses, workshops and events focused on food education, from an Urban Garden seminar offered during the Spring quarter to talks with local farmers to walking tours of the edible trees on campus, led by Tracy Kahn, curator of the UCR Citrus Variety Collection. As part of the initiative, UCR faculty and staff members are developing a UC systemwide lecture series called “Healthy Students, Healthy Campus, Healthy Communities.”
“UCR’s vision for the UC Global Food Initiative is to raise the profile of food issues as an integrated part of our daily lives starting locally, building globally,” says Peggy Mauk, director of Agricultural Operations and UCR’s initiative leader. “There is a renewed sense of energy on campus regarding food education and outreach. The initiative has been an excellent vehicle to bring together faculty, staff and students to address food issues.”
For the UCR community, it’s a movement they see, touch and even taste. This winter, fruits and vegetables from R’Garden will debut in the university’s residential restaurants and at the Barn. A hope is that when diners learn about where their produce comes from, they’ll develop a greater appreciation for the harvesting process and the nutritional benefits of plant-based foods.
“We’re grooming the people who can really make a difference,” says Cheryl Garner, executive director of dining services. “These are first-time shoppers, first-time cooks and future parents and leaders. With the rising cost of health care, clearly, we can’t just continue to think about health in the way we have in the past. We have to ask, how do we educate around it? How do we actually change people’s eating habits?”
Garner adds that many farmers are now retiring, so there’s an urgency to inspire and groom the next generation. “Campuses need to develop programs to get young people excited about farming, to teach them how to do it in a proper manner—or else we’re going to run out of food,” she says.
To help engage students in the Global Food Initiative efforts, the UC Office of the President created a fellowship program, funding three students on each campus to work on projects or internships related to the mission. At UCR, Daniel Lopez, Dietlinde Heilmayr and Darrin Lin received the award, which comes with an honorarium of up to $2,500. Lopez, a third-year undergraduate with a double-major in linguistics and anthropology, is investigating why 22 percent of UCR students self-reported that they skip meals often or very often, according to the 2012 University Experience Survey (UCUES). He hopes to curb the statistic and eventually open an on-campus pantry, a place where students can pick up food for the day, week and even the quarter. Heilmayr, a second-year graduate student in the School of Psychology, is studying the potential of gardening as a “multifaceted intervention,” a way to slowly shift people onto a healthy trajectory. And Lin, a senior undergraduate majoring in computer engineering, aims to showcase UC Global Food Initiative efforts by developing a new website.
UCR is also launching CAFE — the California Agriculture and Food Enterprise. Led by professor of genetics Norm Ellstrand, it is an institute that will act as an umbrella for UCR interdisciplinary research and other activities associated with food and agriculture in the broadest sense. “The membership is so diverse,” Ellstrand says. “We have researchers studying everything from the psychology of gardening to the interaction of diet and health to crop improvement during environmental challenges.”
Through the efforts at UCR and across the university system, the UC Global Food Initiative hopes to put the world on the path to sustainably and nutritiously feeding itself.
It all starts by planting the seeds.
It’s in the DNA
Abundant in protein and energy-rich oils, cowpeas — also known as black-eyed peas — are central to the diets of millions of people across Africa and Asia. But according to Timothy Close and Philip Roberts, the legume crop is only performing at 20 percent of its genetic potential. So they’ve set out to breed new cowpea varieties, ones with traits such as higher yield and quality, disease resistance, pest resistance and drought tolerance. To accomplish this, they’re not using the laborious breeding methods that have become the standard — crossing one variety with another, based on best guesses. Instead, they’re using a genetic tool called DNA marker-assisted breeding.
“We are at the dawn of a new era of worldwide cooperation for cowpea breeding and genetics, and it is exciting to be part of the transition that is underway,” Close says.
Placed in the plant genome, DNA markers are molecular flags that indicate the location of a particular genetic trait. They allow breeders to screen large populations of plants and locate genes linked to the traits they specify. Close, a professor of genetics, and Roberts, a professor of nematology, received two grants totaling nearly $7 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to continue developing better yielding varieties of cowpea through marker-assisted breeding and new genomic resources.
The support has allowed the pair to increase the resolution of the cowpea genetic map 40-fold, from about 1,100 genetic markers to about 45,000 genetic markers. Close calls it a “very detailed road map” of the cowpea genome.
“We now live in the light of the ‘genome era,’” Close says, describing the new landscape in which each organism can be studied directly or as part of an ecosystem. “The consequences for practical applications are tremendous for food security, renewable energy, conservation and to foster respect for human cultural diversity.”
Few fruits are branded as strongly with Southern California’s fresh, laid-back image as the avocado.
Mary Lu Arpaia wants to make the avocado better. The UC Cooperative Extension subtropical horticulturist gives a checklist of traits that the ideal variety should possess. “The tree should be semi-dwarfing, adaptable to high density plantings, early-bearing and less prone to alternate bearing,” she says. “Ideally, it will be stress tolerant and have some salt tolerance and of course, be of excellent flavor and possess good shipping and ripening characteristics.”
Arpaia leads the avocado variety breeding program at UCR, which has existed since the 1950s. The goal of the research is to develop new and improved avocado varieties that meet the needs of California avocado growers.
In the early 1980s, the program released a variety called the Gwen. It was similar to the known-and-loved Hass in its flavor and thick, pebbly skin, though the trees required nearly a third of the space to grow and produced twice as much fruit. But the Gwen never took off commercially, in part because it didn’t turn black when it ripened like the Hass. After that, the program’s former breeder planted more than 60,000 variety seedlings on farms across Southern California. Avocados are a particular challenge since the selection rate for promising varieties is about one or two selections per 1,000 seeds planted, according to Arpaia. Four varieties were eventually released from this mass planting: Lamb Hass, SirPrize, Harvest and GEM.
The GEM avocado has the same excellent characteristics as Hass, but the variety is more consistent in its production and the trees are more compact, so growers have fewer harvesting and maintenance costs.
Now they’re evaluating even more varieties and hoping to release them over the next few years. Avocado lovers: Arpaia arranges avocado tastings each month at Batchelor Hall.
Sure, your refrigerator may be stocked with oranges, lemons, grapefruit and limes from Albertsons. But have you ever bitten into the beautiful pink flesh of a Cara Cara or tasted the rich sweetness of a Gold Nugget mandarin, or marveled at the gnarly, squid-like “fingers” of a Buddha’s Hand?
Tracy Kahn has, and can talk about the origins, qualities and harvesting seasons of each one. She’s the principal museum scientist and curator of UCR’s Citrus Variety Collection, which spans 22 acres. Consisting of two trees each of more than 1,000 citrus types, the collection is one of the most famous citrus germplasm collections in the world.
“Citrus diversity is amazing,” Kahn says. “We have fruits as small as a pea and as large as a person’s head. Fruits that are red, purple, yellow, blue, green. There are all types imaginable.”
UCR has a special connection with citrus, as its history begins with the fruit. In 1873, when Eliza Tibbets planted two Bahia navel orange seedlings in her Riverside garden, she inadvertently set off California’s citrus gold rush. The boom helped prompt the University of California Regents in 1907 to establish the Riverside Citrus Experiment Station, the forebear of UCR. In 1910, the Citrus Variety Collection was established to support the needs of the developing citrus industry in Southern California.
Today, scientists use the collection to conduct research projects, map citrus genomes and search for ways to battle crop-destroying pests and diseases. They also breed citrus to develop new varieties. In 2006, UCR introduced the Tango, a mandarin orange that can be grown anywhere with one to very few seeds.
Along with working with scientists, Kahn leads walking tours of the collection and collaborates with companies such as Givaudan, a Swiss manufacturer of flavorings and fragrances that finds inspiration in the groves. She’s also co-principal investigator with Mikeal Roose on a project to evaluate the commercial potential of new citrus cultivars. This is part of an integrated program to develop and evaluate new commercial citrus scion and rootstock cultivars suitable for California conditions.
“I probably have one of the coolest jobs on campus,” Kahn says. “In the springtime, the whole campus smells like citrus flowers.”
Bug vs. Bug
Brown marmorated stink bug. Avocado lace bug. Asian citrus psyllid. Red palm weevil. Gold spotted oak borer. In Mark Hoddle’s eyes, they all must be stopped.
His official title is the director of the Center for Invasive Species Research, but Hoddle is also known as the “Indiana Jones of Insects.” Every year, California’s diverse ecosystem is invaded by new, often-destructive species of exotic pests, resulting in annual economic losses of more than $3 billion. Hoddle travels around the world on a quest for natural enemies that can combat these species before they cause extensive damage to agriculture, residential areas and native plants and animals.
The Asian citrus psyllid, for example, can spread the lethal citrus disease known as huanglongbing (HLB), previously called citrus greening. It’s already done crippling damage in Florida: So far, the insect-disease combination has cost the state’s citrus industry more than $4.5 billion in output and 8,000 jobs. And it has come to California. The psyllid arrived in San Diego County in 2008, and the first case of HLB was detected in Los Angeles County in 2012.
To find the insect’s natural enemy, Hoddle took multiple trips to Pakistan, where the psyllid is native. In the Punjab region, he and a team collected colonies of Tamarixia radiata, a type of wasp, and brought them back to the Quarantine Facility at UCR. Tests showed that the species were safe for the environment, and the first release took place in 2011. Since then, Hoddle and the California Department of Food and Agriculture have released more than 1 million Tamarixia radiata in Southern California at more than 350 different sites. Another parasitic wasp from Pakistan, Diaphorencyrtus aligarhensis, joined California’s battle against the psyllid in December.
Hoddle explains that using natural enemies to control invasive species reduces — and in some cases completely eliminates — the need for pesticides. “This is good for the environment, our food and water supplies, native plants and animals and people,” he says.