Chancellor's Friday Letters

Grant addresses food security

Grant addresses food security

April 8, 2011

Dear Friends,

Access, affordability and excellent quality… it sounds like I am preparing to write about higher education again!!  Not so fast…

This time it is about food – and research at UCR that holds enormous promise to enhance the availability, affordability, and improve nutritional quality of potatoes and tomatoes.

The campus’s key role in that work has been acknowledged by the vital investment that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has made in UCR’s Professor of Plant Pathology Howard Judelson, along with the team of scientists and educators he has assembled from around the world.  Just this week Dr. Judelson received a $9 million grant from the USDA for this work.

Stop to consider what is at stake.

There is a stubborn plant disease that mainly attacks potatoes and tomatoes called “late blight.”  “Late blight” is caused by a fungus-like microbe and proliferates in cool, moist weather. This is a threat to home gardeners and commercial farmers alike, as the disease can wipe out tomato plants and potato fields within a week.

To give this disease some perspective, “late blight” was mainly responsible for approximately 1 million people succumbing in the Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century.  The disease still exists today, and causes more than $7 billion in loss to the growing industry and world food supply.

The target of this disease is stunningly expansive: about 320 million tons of potatoes are produced worldwide each year, with 20 million tons per year in the U.S.  About 120 million tons of tomatoes are grown worldwide each year, with13 million tons of those in the U.S.

In California, “late blight” is mostly seen in the Central Valley in the early season, when conditions are moist and cool.  Elsewhere in the United States, “late blight” is seen predominantly on potatoes in eastern states like Maine, New York and Pennsylvania, and outbreaks also occur in the Midwest and West. Tomato production from Florida and up the East Coast is also vulnerable to the disease.

The five-year grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture aims to control “late blight,” to reduce on-farm costs and to significantly decrease the use of fungicides, and to train future plant pathologists.

The $9 million grant is the third largest to UCR over the past 10 years, and builds on UCR’s worldwide leadership on the cutting edge of science to understand and eradicate agricultural pests.

Professor Judelson, who has worked on this disease for more than 20 years, leads the multidisciplinary team of extension faculty and researchers, including UCR’s Thomas Girke, an associate professor of bioinformatics, and four other UCR researchers.  The five-year effort has a strong undergraduate research component. The international team includes plant pathologists, molecular biologists, epidemiologists, plant breeders, sociologists and economists – at universities, government labs and a nonprofit research institution from around the world.

The goal is to develop an integrated plan of research, education and extension that includes developing diagnostic tools, resistant plants through breeding and biotechnology, and systems to provide improved management guidelines to growers.

Interestingly and importantly, the researchers also will test and expand the use of social media and smartphone technology to communicate with growers.

Here on campus, we all work hard at maintaining educational access, affordability and excellent quality.  Professor Judelson’s mission is about nothing less than feeding the world. What a worthy goal for a land-grant university.



Tim White, Chancellor

Worthy woman of the year
I’d like to thank Pam Clute, executive director of UCR’s ALPHA Center, for guiding thousands of young people to a better understanding of their own academic talents. Riverside County Supervisor Bob Buster named her the Woman of the Year for 2011 from his district. She has long been a powerhouse with a passion for science and mathematics education.  The community and the campus could not ask for a better mentor, role model, champion and leader.

Inside the genome
UCR’s upcoming Science Circle Lecture Series is an opportunity to delve more deeply into the science behind plant genetics, invasive species, nanotechnology and new materials. The first of this year’s series, funded by private donors, is a talk by National Academy of Sciences member Susan Wessler.  It begins at 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 14.

Professor writes about ‘spring shame’
The Huffington Post published a powerful piece on teacher layoffs by Creative writing Professor Susan Straight last week.  I strongly recommend it.  It’s clear-sighted, well-balanced and thought-provoking.

Find out what else is going on at UC Riverside: http://www.ucr.edu/happenings/

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