Knowledge for better food systems

Agricultural Sustainability Institute


Where are you based and what kind of organisation are you?

The Agricultural Sustainability Institute (ASI) is a new research and outreach unit within the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of California, Davis (Davis, CA, USA). Director of ASI, Tom Tomich and his father – a Californian farmer

What is your broad area of expertise?

The ASI provides leadership for research, teaching, outreach and extension efforts in agricultural sustainability, focusing on the Davis campus but having linkages throughout the University of California system.   One of the primary purposes for establishing the ASI was to provide a focal point for multiple research, teaching, and outreach initiatives dealing with agricultural sustainability that have been scattered across different departments and administrative units at UC Davis.

Give a range of the projects you are currently working on

Faculty and extension staff based in different departments at the university and affiliated with the ASI work on a broad range of topics relating to agricultural sustainability, from long-term crop production experiments to food science, food processing, agricultural engineering, and so on. tractor_earth.jpg

What aspect of your work with relevance to the food-climate change issue would you like to feature?  

The ASI is in the beginning stages of launching a multi-year research, education, and implementation program to 1) collect data on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in the food system, 2) construct general, consumer-oriented guidelines on how to choose a "low-carbon diet", and 3) begin to implement the guidelines in the food services industry.

Describe the work in more detail - how it started, what stage it is at, who has/have been involved and their different roles

Planning for this program began in 2006, with a multi-disciplinary team composed of members from the UC Davis collaborating entity, the Institute of Transportation Studies, and a food services industry collaborator, Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation. Additional members of the program planning team included faculty in Biological and Agricultural Engineering and Agricultural and Resource Economics, research staff from the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, and a graduate student in International Agricultural Development.

What do you see as the big questions for the food climate research community at the moment?

One of the most critical issues at the moment is to work towards standardizing research protocols and primary input data (such as energy coefficients of commonly-used agricultural products) for performing Life Cycle Assessment of fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions of food products.   While there are many completed LCA studies of food commodities out there, they have all been conducted by different researchers using different systems boundaries and methodological protocols, so trying to compare their results is like comparing apples and oranges.   We can only begin to draw meaningful insights about climate change "hotspots" in the food system and about which foods rely more and which rely less on fossil fuel inputs when we can compare the results of multiple standardized LCA studies.

What are the big questions you feel YOU are seeking to answer at the moment?

We would like to understand how progress in European work on LCA in foods is applicable to the US food system - which aspects need to be revised with US-specific data and which aspects are relevant as is, and also what is the next step needed to catalyze more California-based research on this subject, and how to do this in such a way that it can be usefully compared to LCA research being conducted elsewhere.

Is there any expertise you feel you lack and would you welcome help/collaboration with others?

Expertise on LCA in foods. tractor_green.jpg

What are your plans for the immediate future as regards this work?

We are planning a symposium of invited guests, including some European researchers and LCA experts, as well as US researchers and policy planners, to assist us in charting the next steps to launching our larger scale research and outreach program on energy use and climate change potential of our food system. With this symposium, to be held in Oct, 2007, we also hope to broaden our network of experts in the field and gather some input on how to standardize LCA studies conducted under this research program.

What are the milestones might we look out for (e.g. report publication; launch event; conference, etc.)?

News about the symposium, to be published in late October or early November.

What are the insights / skills / data (big or small) you can offer to the rest of the research world on food and climate change?

UC Davis has a history of research on energy intensity in the food system, especially in food processing and transportation. Much of the work on food processing was conducted during the 1970's and 1980's, but still offers relevant information on the relative energy use of different processing methods. The Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, a collaborator with the ASI, has also been involved in cutting-edge research and on-the-ground implementation of various aspects of energy use in transportation, including alternative energy sources. Other researchers in the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences are investigating energy use in production agriculture. In addition, the new UC Davis Energy Efficiency Center, another ASI collaborator, is working on identifying energy efficiency technologies and developing viable business ventures around these technologies. In other words, it is acting as a mediator between university research and the business world. In our work on the California and U.S. food system, we hope to build on this model of catalyzing new research and then working with appropriate entities outside of the university to implement the research results.

Contact details:

Agricultural Sustainability Institute
University of California, One Shields Avenue
Davis, CA 95616 Tel: (00 1) 530 752-7556 Email