UC Riverside Cooks Up New Agricultural Research Center

The California Agriculture and Food Enterprise (CAFÉ) gathers UCR’s vast agriculture resources for more collaboration and outreach

A launch event for CAFE started with tastes of dishes made with UCR’s legacy crops. Photo credit: Michael Elderman

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) – Great chefs understand the subtle flavors of food chemistry. A new research center at UC Riverside will serve the same purpose, creating fruitful faculty interactions, all related to food and agriculture.

The California Agriculture and Food Enterprise (CAFÉ), approved by the UC Riverside Office of Research and Economic Development, has a catchy name. It will expand UCR’s influence beyond UCR’s signature crops of citrus, asparagus, avocado and cowpea, to new kinds of research collaborations and outreach.

Tracy Kahn and Norm Ellstrand standing in Culver Center.

Tracy Kahn and Norm Ellstrand at the launch event for the CAFE research center. Ellstrand has been planning the center. Kahn is the curator of UCR’s Citrus Variety Collection.Photo credit: Michael Elderman

“We are interested in agriculture in the broadest sense,” said Norm Ellstrand, a professor of genetics at UCR who has been leading the planning process. “A huge fraction of that is food, but it also could include topics as diverse as lawns, forestry, and water use. Our mission is broad, so we bringing together interested faculty, students, staff and administrators from all across the campus, including engineering, medicine, public policy, and the humanities and social sciences.”

As stated in the approved research center proposal CAFÉ’s mission is as an umbrella research initiative that facilitates the integrative, multidisciplinary study of the complex issues associated with agriculture/food in the broadest sense for the betterment of the health and well-being of humanity and the planet.

The mission is perfect for the Golden state, said Helen Chen, chief operations officer at Ambryx Biotechnology of Riverside.

“When I think about California, one natural advantage is that we actually produce a large amount of food for the country’s food, and we are also a hub for technology,” said Chen, an advisory board member for UCR’s College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences. “This institute will allow a new generation of researchers to innovate. Agriculture is fundamental. Food sources are something everyone can relate to.”

Michael Pazzani, UCR’s Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development, approved the formation of the center in early February. “CAFÉ is a unique interdisciplinary research initiative building on existing expertise here at UC Riverside, “Pazzani said. “From crop improvement to biological controls, UCR is expanding its capabilities and is well positioned to make a meaningful impact to protect and grow the multi-billion industry within the State and beyond.” 

The process of creating the research center started even before the 2014 launch of the University of California Global Food Initiative (UCGFI). The overarching question of that initiative is how to sustainably and nutritiously feed a world population expected to reach eight billion by 2025.

Janet Napolitano and all of the system’s chancellors agreed to take on the challenge of leveraging the UC’s substantial resources in agriculture make sure research is translated into public policy. The initiative also asks each campus to leverage its own buying power to create new and healthy food options for all of those who eat on campus.

“CAFÉ compliments the mission of the UCGFI,” said Ellstrand. “We want to build on UCR’s unique history and strengths in interdisciplinary research, facilities and outreach.”  One unusual aspect of the CAFÉ, Ellstrand said, is that it is inclusive. For example, some CAFÉ members include UCR Auxiliary services staff, which includes the campus restaurants and dining services operation. Ellstrand said students, staff, and administrators has given CAFÉ a larger footprint on the campus than similar “food” or “ag”research centers at other institutions.

Cheryl Garner, executive director of Dining Services on campus and one of the campus co-leaders of UCGFI, agreed that working together is paying dividends. “I have met more faculty members since the beginning of the Global Food Initiative than in all my years here before that.”  In addition to overseeing the food served on campus, she works closely with projects such as the community garden, a community supported agriculture (CSA) project that provides weekly boxes of locally-sourced produce, and a plan to unveil some UCR labeled specialty food products through the UCR bookstore, campus restaurants and even online.

close up of appetizer

The Salted Pig made dishes from UCR’s signature crops, including avocado, asparagus, citrus and cowpea.Photo credit: Michael Elderman

On Friday, Feb. 5, during the official launch of CAFE, Ellstrand introduced faculty, staff and students to each other as they nibbled on appetizers made from UCR’s signature crops by a downtown restaurant, “The Salted Pig.”

The keynote speaker was Thomas Tomich, Director, Agricultural Sustainability Institute and WK Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems at UC Davis.

An earlier CAFÉ-UCGFI event that helped build cooperative relationships included a panel discussion on GMOs that included both UCR and UC Davis researchers, moderated by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Two food writers spoke on campus, David Karp, who writes about farmer’s markets for major media outlets, as well as OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano, who talked about food and culture.

On Monday, March 21, UCR will host the GrowRIVERSIDE Conference, which gathers backyard gardeners, farmers, nursery owners, fruit experts and others for panel discussions, workshops and presentations.

“There is a need for cross-disciplinary research, to attack the big questions in broad-sense agriculture, for example, addressing food waste requires a coordinated approach from – at the very least – biological sciences, engineering, business, economics, environmental sciences and public policy,” Ellstrand said. “CAFÉ will be the place on our campus where we can explore the those subjects across disciplines.”

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