UC Food Blog
Oli Bachie, “person of the globe,” researches new desert crops to spur economic growth
While herding goats along dusty roads as a boy growing up in Oromia, Ethiopia, Oli Bachie began striving to improve his economic position in life. His path to a better life passed through the Philippines and Canada before reaching the United States. Now, carrying the mantle of Ph.D., the UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor is doing research to help California farmers take advantage of new opportunities for economic growth.
More than 400 different crops and animals are commercially produced in California. The wide array of agricultural products keep California farmers competitive in the global market. UC Cooperative Extension research into new crops provides growers with information that can lower the risk of trying something new.
Rhodes grass, giant king grass, quinoa and teff are among the crops Bachie has been studying since he joined UC Agriculture and Natural Resources in 2012.
“Giant king grass and Rhodes grass were brought to my attention by companies who wanted me to test their adaptability, biomass yield and nutrition as livestock feed,” Bachie said. “My findings proved that they indeed adapt and produce high biomass and were nutritionally competent or better than many of the low desert grown grass forage crops.”
Two companies provided Bachie with funding to conduct the research. “We do research for industries, companies and growers as long as they provide funding and if we believe that the outcome of the research benefits our clientele and the local economy,” he explained.
Viaspace, a company that grows giant king grass in 11 locations in eight countries on four continents, has relied on Bachie's research for establishing its plantings in the Imperial Valley.
“Oli's research helped us establish basic growing procedures and parameters for Imperial County. It provided the critical information that gave us the confidence to start a larger commercial effort in the desert,” said Haris Basit, vice chairman of Viaspace.
To share information with Imperial Valley growers, Bachie has presented his research results on Rhodes grass varieties at field days and workshops and published in the UCCE Imperial AgBrief newsletter and in the proceedings of the 2019 Western Alfalfa and Forage Crops Symposium. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has been giving talks via Zoom on Rhodes grass as a new emerging crop, including a zoom workshop organized by the University of Arizona.
“Rhodes grass productivity is well-recognized and is adapted for production not only in the Imperial Valley, but also as far as San Joaquin County and in the state of Arizona,” he said. “A grower in Imperial has started to export Rhodes grass hay to the Middle East. More and more growers within the Imperial Valley and beyond are interested in growing Rhodes grass. I get lots of calls to answer Rhodes grass-related questions. There is now a Rhodes grass seed distributing company in Imperial Valley.”
Giant king grass – a hybrid of elephantgrass and Napier grass, which both grow well as wild plants in Ethiopia – and Rhodes grass are widely grown in Ethiopia. But Bachie didn't study these grasses until he joined UC Cooperative Extension.
Bachie grew up farming with his parents in the rural western part of Oromia, where most coffee and food crops are produced in Ethiopia. “By the way, the name ‘coffee' is derived from a place in Oromia called Kaffaa,” he noted.
“After school in winter, when most farming takes place, I engaged myself in farming,” Bachie said. That afterschool activity piqued his interest in farming and fueled his pursuit of a bachelor's degree in plant sciences from Haromaya University in Ethiopia.
“At that time, when I joined the university, there was only one university in the country,” he said. “I was lucky enough to be one of the few to get university admissions among thousands of high school students.”
In Ethiopia, he worked on a program sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization for six years, mostly as a crop protection expert. He studied insects, weeds, pathogens and other crop pests on field crops, vegetables and horticultural crops.
“The experiences I gathered from Ethiopia help me provide services in Imperial County in multidisciplinary pest management – insects, pathogens, weeds and nematodes – at times when we did not have any pest management advisor in Imperial County,” he said. “It has also given me the opportunity to deal with clientele with easy transfer of scientific knowledge.”
Bachie was selected as an FAO fellow to pursue a master's degree in agronomy at the University of the Philippines.
“My area of particular concern then was to look at allelopathy (a chemical inhibition of plant extracts or exudates) as a potential inhibition of weed growth,” Bachie said. His plans to develop a biological weed management approach were disrupted when he graduated with a master's degree and he refused to return to his dictator-led home country.
“Ethiopia was then and is still ruled under a brutal government where educated personnel have little value,” he explained. After graduation, he sought settlement in another country. “That supportive state, which I thank dearly, was Canada.”
After earning a master's degree in forestry from the University of Toronto, Bachie accepted a job at a university teaching network administration and came to the U.S., where he earned a Ph.D. in biological sciences at UC Riverside, “Americanizing not only myself, but also my credential and now I serve UC with full interest and strength,” said Bachie, who holds dual U.S. and Canadian citizenship.
In the spring of 2019, Bachie started comparing grass forage crops (bermudagrass, kleingrass, Rhodes grass and teff) with moringa for livestock feed under low desert conditions. Growers will be able to use the research results to decide which crops will be most profitable for their own operations.
Last summer, Bachie completed a variety trial of quinoa, a grain grown primarily for its edible seeds. He tested the adaptability and grain yield of 35 varieties of quinoa in the heat and biotic stress of the Imperial Valley.
“Of the tested varieties, many tolerated the high heat of the desert and gave promising yields,” said Bachie, who showed the varieties to farmers at an agronomy and irrigation crops field day. “The high grain prices of quinoa in the U.S. and the proof of adaptability and yielding capacity under the low desert condition is expected to attract some growers to grow some quinoa varieties in the Imperial Valley.”
Bachie recently completed a survey of weeds in the county and is planning to publish a handbook titled “Weeds of Imperial County and Management Approaches.”
“While my journey is a huge zigzag and I came up through difficulties, I am very glad that I was able to travel and survive and made myself from a goat herder to an American Ph.D.,” said Bachie, who has also taught biology and environmental science courses part time at Victor Valley and Imperial Valley community colleges, respectively.
“My travel all over the world has enhanced my concepts of human diversity and the affinity to associate and work with people of various backgrounds. To be sure, I call myself a person of the globe.”
Raw hunger or thirst usually draws people to buy snacks from vending machines. Healthy options, calorie counts and reminders help consumers make good-sense decisions when they slip in coins or a credit card, according to research by a working group organized under UC's Global Food Initiative and led by the UC Nutrition Policy Institute.
The working group set out to develop guidelines for food service providers at all 10 UC campuses and other UC facilities in stocking and promoting healthy options in their vending machines. They also created a toolkit with step-by-step guidance in making the switch, including everything from early meetings with students, food service and vendors to anticipating and preparing for barriers to implementation.
As part of the project, the Nutrition Policy Institute evaluated data from six UC campuses that show healthy vending options are growing in popularity, which eases concerns about a potential reduction in profit by making vending healthier.
“In 2005, California began introducing policies limiting junk food in vending machines and student stores on K-12 campuses,” said Janice Kao, a researcher at the Nutrition Policy Institute and chair of the working group. “Today's college students are used to having healthy snack options in schools. Customer resistance that some vendors talk about isn't necessarily the case anymore.”
Two UC campuses – UCLA and UC San Francisco – have been early adopters in making healthy vending machine choices available. According to the evaluation, the two locations achieved the goal of having 70% of their beverage vending products fit the “healthy” description. Other UC campuses are working on adding healthy options – with a wide variation in implementation and definition of “healthy.”
The Global Food Initiative working group recommends a higher standard for “healthy” snacks than some campuses and vendors. The key difference is the decision that an item can only be considered “healthy” if the first ingredient is a fruit, vegetable, low-fat dairy, protein or whole grain.
“This guideline means some granola bars cannot be considered a healthy snack,” Kao said.
Even so, the evaluation results showed improvement in the sales of healthy products.
“Campuses that have actively worked on healthy vending saw greater sales of healthy snacks and drinks,” Kao said. “We want to learn from those experiences and develop systemwide standards to provide consistency. With everyone following the same guidelines, there is potential to take advantage of systemwide food procurement economies of scale and contribute to meeting UC's sustainability goals.”
The NPI evaluation compared the greenhouse gas emissions associated with traditional vending and healthy vending. A dramatic difference emerged when comparing candy bar ingredients and healthy snack bar ingredients. Greenhouse gas emissions of candy bar ingredients were estimated to be more than twice as high as healthy snack bar ingredients.
During the month of June, families at the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Tribe and nearby trailer parks in eastern Coachella Valley received free produce boxes weekly from the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program.
This program was created by USDA to give families in need access to fresh food during the coronavirus pandemic. From May 15 to June 30, USDA purchased agricultural products under Families First Coronavirus Response Act from suppliers who were impacted by closure of restaurants and other food service businesses for distribution to those in need.
The UC Agriculture and Natural Resources CalFresh Healthy Living Program at UC Cooperative Extension in Riverside County helped connect the Torres Martinez Tribal Council with Sunrise Produce Company, a supplier in Southern California that contracted with USDA.
About 400 22-pound produce boxes were delivered to the tribal headquarters every Friday in June. Vice chairman Joseph Mirelez of the Torres Martinez Tribal Council and his team organized the truckload delivery and distribution. CalFresh Healthy Living, UC nutrition educator Jackie Barahona provided indirect education by distributing recipe cards from Leah's Pantry and handouts with the "eating the rainbow" recommendation from the Plate Full of Color storybook produced by CDC Native Diabetes Wellness Program.
According to the American Community Survey (2014-2018), 28% of families in Thermal live below poverty level (shaperivco.org). In addition, 16.7% (14,647) of children in Coachella Valley live in households where their parents/guardians were often or sometimes concerned about their ability to buy food. (harcdata.org, 2019)
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This is one of a series of stories featuring a sampling of UC ANR academics whose work exemplifies the public value UC ANR brings to California.
Farmers are already seeing the effects of warmer winter nights and hotter summer days on their crops. Climate change is gradual, but increasing overall temperatures affect many aspects of farming, including where and how crops are grown. Tapan Pathak, University of California Cooperative Extension specialist based at UC Merced, is doing applied research that farmers and ranchers can use to adapt to new conditions created by a variable and changing climate.
“You don't have to shift your practice tomorrow, but if you are thinking of making a 30-year investment, it's important to know what risks there are for planting different crops,” said Pathak, who is based in the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at UC Merced.
Pathak co-chairs the UC Cooperative Extension Climate Change Program Team, whose mission is to increase the capacity among UCCE academics to address climate change concerns with science-based information. Pathak also collaborates with extension professionals from across the western U.S. to do extension events related to climate change adaptation. He works closely with state and federal agencies statewide and growers to identify changes occurring as a result of climate change that affect agriculture. Pathak's research will inform growers' decisions, such as crop variety, planting and harvest dates, extreme heat and frost protection and pest management.
“We are seeing impacts of climate change, that's evident. We have some solutions that are available, but we also need to do more locally relevant crop specific research to make agriculture resilient to climate risks,” Pathak said.
The UCCE scientist was the lead author on an important paper that synthesized the impacts of climate change on California agriculture and offers directions for future research and implementation. The authors concluded that almost all of California's crops, collectively valued at more than $50 billion a year, will be endangered to some degree by rising temperatures and variable weather patterns. The study “Climate Change Trends and Impacts on California Agriculture” was published in Agronomy in 2018.
“I think there's a lot of solutions available and there is also a clear need for adaptation research that include growers' perspectives,” said Pathak, who received a Climate Leadership Award for research from the California Climate & Agriculture Network.
Pathak is also collaborating very closely with UC Davis-based UCCE specialist Daniele Zaccaria, who is leading an international project on evaluating bioclimatic indices and developing the index that is more relevant to irrigated agriculture, which includes scientists from the U.S., Italy, Brazil and Chile.
“A bioclimatic index specific to irrigated agriculture can provide more accurate and valuable agricultural drought information that could be helpful for water resources planning and management decisions,” Pathak said.
Pathak is developing a web-based decision support system called Cal AgroClimate to help growers make decisions, in partnership with the USDA California Climate Hub director Steven Ostoja. It is being built on the same platform as AgroClimate, which is popular with growers in the Southeast.
Cal AgroClimate translates historical climate data and future projections into a useful decision support system for growers. For example, growers can get extreme heat and frost advisories for the next 10 to 14 days in their region and relevant resources to mitigate risks for their selected crop. It is in the early phase of development and will include a suite of tools based on the needs and priorities identified by UCCE colleagues, growers and the agricultural community in general.
In addition to his work on Cal AgroClimate, Pathak has been conducting research on specific crops.
In a study looking at processing tomato production in the Central Valley, Pathak and UCCE advisor Scott Stoddard found that changing temperatures will likely change the tomato growing season. The scientists looked at processing tomato data starting from 1950 and projections for 2030-2040 to see how the time to maturity is changing.
“In general, the time from emergence to maturity, the timeframe for processing tomatoes in that region is going to shrink by two to three weeks,” said Pathak. “A lot of processors have their timeline for when they need the tomatoes for processing and so when you have this shift in the phenology, that alters the timeframe for when they mature and are ready for the processors. So, there's a whole shift in the management that growers might have to think about in the future.”
To identify the climate information almond growers need to take adaptation action, UC Berkeley postdoctoral researcher Kripa Jagannathan, former UCCE advisor David Doll and Pathak interviewed almond growers in the Central Valley. During their conversations with farmers, the researchers clarified that long-term climate projections are not seasonal forecasts or weather forecasts for the next 20 to 30 years. The projections provide information on trends or potential of shifts from historical conditions for making long-term planning decisions.
Pest control is one area where growers will need to make changes. Research by UCCE advisor Jhalendra Rijal and Pathak shows the almond pest navel orangeworm is already extending its life to a fifth generation during a season.
For strawberries, Pathak, UCCE entomology and biologicals advisor Surendra Dara and postdoctoral researcher Mahesh Maskey have developed a model to forecast weekly crop yields based on weather data. “The model was pretty accurate for the Santa Maria region,” Pathak said. “A crop-specific model can be used for labor management not just crop management.”
Because California produces more than 400 agricultural products, adapting to climate change will be more complex than in other states.
Consumer demand is rising for all things avocado, including oil made from the fruit. Avocado oil is a great source of vitamins, minerals and the type of fats associated with reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. But according to new research from food science experts at the University of California, Davis, the vast majority of avocado oil sold in the U.S. is of poor quality, mislabeled or adulterated with other oils.
In the country's first extensive study of commercial avocado oil quality and purity, UC Davis researchers report that at least 82% of test samples were either stale before expiration date or mixed with other oils. In three cases, bottles labeled as “pure” or “extra virgin” avocado oil contained near 100 percent soybean oil, an oil commonly used in processed foods that's much less expensive to produce.
who led the study recently published in the journal Food Control.“Most people who buy avocado oil are interested in the health benefits, as well as the mild, fresh flavor, and are willing to pay more for the product. But because there are no standards to determine if an avocado oil is of the quality and purity advertised, no one is regulating false or misleading labels. These findings highlight the urgent need for standards to protect consumers and establish a level playing field to support the continuing growth of the avocado oil industry.”
Testing domestic and imported brands
Wang and Hilary Green, a Ph.D. candidate in Wang's lab, analyzed various chemical parameters of 22 domestic and imported avocado oil samples, which included all the brands they could find in local stores and online. Wang and Green received a $25,000 grant from Dipasa USA, part of the Dipasa Group, a sesame-seed and avocado-oil processor and supplier based in Mexico.
“In addition to testing commercial brands, we also bought avocados and extracted our own oil in the lab, so we would know, chemically, what pure avocado oil looks like,” Wang said.
Test samples included oils of various prices, some labeled extra virgin or refined. Virgin oil is supposed to be extracted from fresh fruit using only mechanical means, and refined oil is processed with heat or chemicals to remove any flaws.
Fifteen of the samples were oxidized before the expiration date. Oil loses its flavor and health benefits when it oxidizes, which happens over time and when exposed to too much light, heat or air. Six samples were mixed with large amounts of other oils, including sunflower, safflower and soybean oil.
Only two brands produced samples that were pure and non-oxidized. Those were Chosen Foods and Marianne's Avocado Oil, both refined avocado oils made in Mexico. Among the virgin grades, CalPure produced in California was pure and fresher than the other samples in the same grade.
A push for standards
Ensuring quality is important for consumers, retailers, producers and people throughout the avocado oil industry. Retailers want to sell quality products, shoppers want to get their money's worth and honest producers want to keep fraudulent and low-quality oil out of the marketplace.
But since avocado oil is relatively new on the scene, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet adopted “standards of identity,” which are basic food standards designed to protect consumers from being cheated by inferior products or confused by misleading labels. Over the last 80 years, the FDA has issued standards of identity for hundreds of products, like whiskey, chocolate, juices and mayonnaise. Without standards, the FDA has no means to regulate avocado oil quality and authenticity.
Avocado oil isn't the only product without enforceable standards. Honey, spices and ground coffee are other common examples. Foods that fetch a higher price are especially ripe for manipulating, especially when adulterations can be too subtle to detect outside a lab.
Wang is working to develop faster, better and cheaper chemical methods to detect adulteration so bulk buyers can test avocado oil before selling it. She is also evaluating more samples, performing shelf-life studies to see how time and storage affects quality, and encouraging FDA officials to establish reasonable standards for avocado oil.
Wang has experience collaborating with industry and the FDA. Ten years ago, she analyzed the quality and purity of extra virgin olive oil and discovered that most of what was being sold in the U.S. was actually a much lower grade. Her research sparked a cascade of responses that led California to establish one of the world's most stringent standards for different grades of olive oil. The FDA is working with importers and domestic producers to develop standards of identity for olive oil.
“Consumers seeking the health benefits of avocado oil deserve to get what they think they are buying,” Wang said. “Working together with the industry, we can establish standards and make sure customers are getting high-quality, authentic avocado oil and the companies are competing on a level playing field.”
Tips for consumers
- The flavor of virgin avocado oil can differ by varieties and region. In general, authentic, fresh, virgin avocado oil tastes grassy, buttery and a little bit like mushrooms.
- Virgin avocado oil should be green in color, whereas refined avocado oil is light yellow and almost clear due to pigments removed during refining.
- Even good oil becomes rancid with time. It's important to purchase a reasonable size that can be finished before the oil oxidizes. Store the oil away from light and heat. A cool, dark cabinet is a good choice, rather than next to the stove.
- How do you know if the oil is rancid? It starts to smell stale, sort of like play dough.
- When possible, choose an oil that's closest to the harvest/production time to ensure maximum freshness. The “best before date” is not always a reliable indicator of quality.