Ag Innovations
Produced by J. Greenberg


The Central Valley has long been known as the "Breadbasket of the World" -- what better place to hold the first ever Ministerial Conference on Agriculture? USDA Secretary Ann Veneman -- herself a Valley native -- presided over the three-day convention that brought delegates from over 100 nations to Sacramento.

Ministers from Afghanistan to Zambia came to learn how the latest breakthroughs in agricultural science and technology could help fight hunger around the world.

Many of those new technologies were developed or refined right here in the Central Valley, home to many of the world's top agricultural companies and institutions. Foremost among them is the University of California at Davis, originally founded in 1908 as the "University Farm."

Dr. Eduardo Blumwald -- a professor at UC Davis since 2000 -- recently won the prestigious Humboldt prize for his work developing a tomato that would grow in salt-tainted soil.

Blumwald modified a single gene in his tomato plants, which allowed them to store more salt in their leaves -- without absorbing it in their fruits. He hopes to use this same technique in alfalfa and other crops.

To that end, the University has recently completed a center dedicated to Plant Transformation, the manipulation of species on a genetic level.

Researchers hope this technology will lead to plants that can grow in a number of harsh environments, to help eliminate hunger around the world. But many nations have been reluctant to embrace these new genetically modified crops. Indeed, even in the face of famine, Zambia made headlines by refusing a US aid shipment of genetically modified corn. Ironically, their fight against GMOs was led by Drina Nyirenda, a native of Zambia who received her Ph.D. at UC Davis.

GMOs are controversial in the U.S. as well, as evidenced by the protestors outside the Ministerial Conference, who let the delegates know that although the Valley is a hotbed of agricultural research, there's another essential side that they shouldn't overlook. They say the Central Valley is also a wonderful breeding ground for organic agriculture, and sustainable agriculture.

Given the history and importance of agriculture in our region, it's not surprising that Valley farmers employ techniques that run the gamut from the latest technology to the oldest methods known. And our research reflects that as well. Scientists at UC Davis work both ends of the technological spectrum -- and many of their efforts aim to replace old toxic science with new, more environmentally safe approaches. For 23 years, the University's Integrated Pest Management Program has helped farmers reduce pesticide use, improve the profitability of their farming, reduce the environmental impact of pesticide use, and improve the health of farmworkers.

Much of their work involves the use of pheromones -- chemicals male insects use to find females for mating. Pheromone laced traps and lures keep pests like the peach twig bore and coddling moths from breeding, offering cheap and eco-friendly protection to orchards and fields. But farmers aren't the only ones to benefit from the program's work.

The program's website receives 17,000 hits a day -- not only from farmers, but from urban dwellers who are trying to control ants, or other pests they might have around the home and garden.

Agricultural research often has unintended consequences. A perfect example is the development of the tomato harvester in the 1960s. Before the agricultural engineers at UC Davis could employ their invention, they needed to tap the skills of the University's plant breeders and geneticists.

First, they needed to develop a tomato plant whose fruit would ripen all at the same time; then, a tomato tough enough to withstand harvesting by machine. Farmers benefitted through faster and more efficient harvesting...but not everyone was happy. Farm workers complained the new technology was costing them jobs. But today, the tomato harvester is often hailed for introducing the job of sorter to the fields -- much less backbreaking than the labor required to harvest by hand.

Only time will tell what the next great innovation in agriculture will be. But change is inevitable -- and to be successful tomorrow, the next generation of farmers must start adapting today.


Dr. Eduardo Blumwald
Professor, UC Davis

Kent Bradford
Director, Seed Biotechnology Center

Drina Nyirenda
Director, Program Against Malnutrition


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