Tom Tomich on UC Davis’ undergraduate program in sustainable agriculture and food systems:

“…we’re focusing on integration, on dealing with complex systems in an integrative way and going from complex ideas to action. We use food as a lens for so much in life, but these courses are about opening doors and not putting people into particular career boxes. One thing I tell people about this major is that there are plenty of places that train people to be managers for agribusiness-as-usual. Our idea is to change the world in good ways and we don’t even know how that may play out. The career paths are not set and are in some cases, unknown.” 


The UC Food Observer was delighted to have an opportunity to chat with Tom Tomich, founding director of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute and inaugural holder of the W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems at UC Davis. Tom also directs UC’s division of Agriculture and Natural Resource’s (ANR) Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP).

A trained agricultural economist with degrees from UC Davis and Stanford, Tom has worked in a dozen countries in Asia, Africa and the Americas. His research spans agriculture and farming systems, economic development, food policy and natural resource management. His latest co-authored book, Is Nitrogen the Next Carbon?: Insights from the California Nitrogen Assessment, is forthcoming in early 2016.

Tom is active on a number of committees and boards, including the Independent Science and Partnership Council of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and the editorial boards of the Annual Review of Environment and Resources (ARER) and the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability (IJAS). He has served as ARER co-editor since January 2015.

Tom was raised on a small family farm growing nearly 100 different varieties of tree fruit in the Sacramento Valley.


About UC Davis’ Agricultural Sustainability Institute (ASI) and UC ANR’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP)...ASI’s mission is to ensure access to healthy food and to promote the vitality of agriculture today and for future generations. The interdisciplinary institute engages in a variety of activities, including integrative research, education, communication and early action on big, emerging issues. Among its programs are those sited at the Russell Ranch facility and the UC Davis student farm. ASI plays an instrumental role in delivering UC Davis’s undergraduate major in sustainable agriculture and food systems.

A newer ASI project – in partnership with the Information Center for the Environment at UC Davis – focuses on the supply chain and “sustainable sourcing of agricultural raw materials.” This work will assist food companies and other food system stakeholders by creating publicly available, scientifically-validated information and tools to aid sourcing decisions. Learn more about that project here.

UC ANR’s SAREP program is co-housed with ASI. SAREP is committed to strengthening California’s agriculture by advancing knowledge of the science of sustainability, supporting farmers and ranchers working to develop more sustainable agricultural practices and working with communities to build strong and healthy regional food systems. SAREP has coordinated a number of research programs related to food and policy (including local and regional food projects) as well as those relating to agriculture, resources and the environment (including a recent California nitrogen assessment project).


Q: You recently spent some time traveling abroad as part of ASI’s sustainable sourcing work. Any takeaways?

Tom: The big thing that seems to be finally breaking is the theme of integration across the food system. The integration of food production practices through to health and nutrition outcomes seems to be finally gaining traction. I’ve been wondering for thirty years when this might happen. This theme is appearing in research, policy and even in how people are talking about it.

Another thing that has emerged is that the World Health Organization and other groups have been taking non-communicable diseases more seriously. That’s a relatively new thing in the last couple of years. It is in part because of aging populations globally. The really big non-communicable diseases that affect not just mortality but quality of life are lifestyle and diet-related. I’m not sure that anyone has looked at the intellectual history of where these ideas are coming from. We should have been thinking about this forever, but we haven’t been asking the right questions about these things; food choices show up at the level of a population years later.

As part of my visit to Switzerland, I visited a company called Buehler. They don’t produce consumer goods; they manufacture food-processing equipment. In fact, they produce equipment for many of the flour mills on the planet, for the almond industry in California and cocoa millers, among others. They produce equipment to process almost anything that has a husk on it that needs to be removed and changed in form. Our host was taking us on a tour of this research laboratory and it was amazing…like a laboratory you might see in a James Bond movie, except that it was for food processing. In terms of the biochemistry of food…we’re way before Copernicus in terms of understanding how some of these molecules affect our health. We don’t really even know what to look for.


Q: What are some of the differences between Switzerland and the United States in terms of food labeling and regulation? What about organics?

Tom: Switzerland has its own regulatory regime and is not part of the European Union. The Swiss say their per capita rates of consumption of organic foods are the highest in OECD countries [OCED – Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development]. Organic food comprises more than 10% of Swiss diets.

But there is a trade-off: food in Switzerland is really expensive, especially things like chicken.

[Editor’s note: Organic consumption is increasing in Switzerland. For information about organic agriculture across the globe, read this 2015 report produced in part by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL)].


Q: What are some of your observations about where food companies are heading?

Tom: I also was able to meet with research colleagues and representatives from food companies. I don’t think food companies think of themselves as European or American. They are mostly thinking of themselves as global. Their vision is global. I think about Barilla [the company produces a range of products, primarily pasta and sauces] which has different packaging for the pasta products the company ships to India, Germany, etc. That way, people can experience the pasta in the way they’re buying it. It might be in plastic wrap or in a box with no visibility. Some people want to see and feel their pasta before buying it, others not so much.

Barilla came up with the double pyramid concept, which is beautiful and elegant. I met with the gentlemen who devised it. And I wished I had thought of it! They juxtaposed two pyramids. One pyramid represented diet and the other was inverted and that was the environmental footprint. It’s really cool. You can poke holes at it, but the company is saying that their business model is to produce foods that align at the wide part of the nutritional pyramid and the narrow part of environmental footprint pyramid. Passion got them into sustainability.

Mars and Nestle are also very interested in links between health and sustainability. Think about the Nestle ”healthy pleasure” initiative. I couldn’t believe it. For a long time, food manufacturing as a commodity model has been low-margin and hyper-competitive. But if you start thinking about a business model that’s creating sustenance for healthy lives…the game changes. These are big companies that are exploring these alternative models, not niche companies.

There are regulatory differences between Europe and U.S. and increasingly consumers and the private sector are driving this. And increasingly we have big players and niche players, but the set of issues is pretty much globalized and there’s apparently real concern for the healthy face of globalization.


Q: There’s been increasing interest in food and agriculture programs in higher education. What are you seeing at UC Davis?  

Tom: We’re so lucky at UC Davis because we have all of these foundations to build on. We’re part of a national network in food and agricultural sustainability that has 25 other universities involved, including UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, UC Riverside and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. We’re moving strongly towards sustainability. [INFAS – Inter-Institutional Network for Food, Agriculture, and Sustainability].

We had this conversation in my class recently. I lead a professional practice workshop for senior-year sustainable agriculture and food system students. They each develop depth of knowledge and experience in some aspect of agricultural production. They also are required to have direct experience with the food system through internships. We run the course like a studio: I had 37 students this year and I coach rather than teach. They work in teams of 7-8 people. Each team has a real world client and the first quarter they figure out what the client’s opportunity or challenge really is. They create a proposal; if it is accepted by their client, they implement the proposal in the 2nd quarter.

One team explored the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems major (SA&FS) itself. What were the assumptions about this major? As a start, they asked people on the UC Davis campus or outside what would people who study sustainable agriculture or food systems at Davis do for a career. The most common answer they heard was “organic farmers”, but probably only a few would actually have that opportunity. Students laugh at the stereotype. And students tell us the skills they acquire in this major and in these courses will serve them in whatever they are doing.

And again, we’re focusing on integration, on dealing with complex systems in an integrative way and going from complex ideas to action. We use food as a lens for so much in life, but these courses are about opening doors and not putting people into particular career boxes. One thing I tell people about this major is that there are plenty of places that train people to be managers for agribusiness-as-usual. Our idea is to change the world in good ways and we don’t even know how that may play out. The career paths are not set and are in some cases, unknown.

We have a lot of different kinds of students coming who are interested in food and this gives me great hope. When we consider our current economic structure you can’t reproduce human resources essential for food production capacity from within agricultural communities alone…we need to be able to have people make the choice to be food producers. It is interesting to see how people get into food and agricultural work.

The question is, is this trend a fad or is it a historic shift? It’s too soon to tell.


Q: Where do you think sustainable agriculture is? Where might it be going?

Tom: I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. For me the hard thing is how to balance a sense of urgency with the long-term commitment to really working all these complex issues out. There is an inescapable tension.


Q: What is a hopeful thing for you now?

Tom: I get to work with young people who want to produce solutions. They are not burdened by the big ideological debates we spent so much time with. They want to do better. They want to learn from previous generations. There is a kind of reverence for experience that is touching. The optimism comes from those people.

Some of my students are working with the Farmer Veteran Coalition. Serendipitously, their client is a graduate from an earlier cohort of SA&FS students. You see how it multiplies.


Q: Any trends we should keep our eyes on?

Tom: In terms of the food industry, the idea of competition is shifting. Increasingly, in addition to competition, some corporate leaders are also seeing some shared interests and the need to work together on sustainability issues. And it is not just the private sector doing this, it is also community groups, NGOs, labor unions, policy makers…all those voices and more. We’re learning a lot about how to do this, but we need to be producing tangible things as fast as possible. That’s why we started a solution center for nutrient management…to take an integrative model and translate it into well-defined practices.

Again, is this an historic shift or a fad? What we do may determine which way it goes. If we don’t accelerate and expand educational programs and deliver solutions quickly, people may become disillusioned.

That’s the challenge side.

I think another big thing that is happening really fast is the mash-up between the food system and information technology, which also links in with finance and risk management. For me it raises questions about what the food system and food companies are going to look like in the future. Right now, Google and Campbell’s have very different business models…are they going to be much more similar sorts of enterprises in the future? What business models will emerge for private sector in a sustainable food system is one of the most interesting questions right now. What will the range of models and scales look like?

I’ve been involved with a global project on the sustainable sourcing of agricultural commodities, which we launched with a gift from Mars Incorporated. We initially thought there wasn’t enough data and indicators. Three years later, it’s clear the problem is the opposite…there is so much data flowing out there, the emerging challenge is how to make sense of it and apply it to inform real decisions.

We’ve always talked about sustainability as being a knowledge or information-intensive set of activities. I think the most important thing we can bring to this is coherence. So I think you could say that we’re in the coherence business; we’re helping to integrate information. Many corporate structures are silos, just like structures in the university. We’re not always set up to take advantage of information in an integrative way. What does this mean for practical decisions, for organizational design, corporate structure and business models? Where are companies and their factories going to be located on the planet and located vis a vis farm communities? All bets are off…this is a great exploratory moment.