Behind That $40 Million Corporate Gift for Sustainable Agriculture, Food, and Health

What is up with Big Food? With one hand, the industry is making us fat, giving us diabetes and hypertension and high cholesterol, and fighting regulations aimed at improving public health. But then, with the other hand, it's funding public health initiatives. What the what? It’s enough to make your head spin.

Just look at this latest gift from Mars, Inc. Y’know, the mega-private food company that also owns Uncle Ben’s, Sheba, and Greenies dog snacks? It just gave $40 million to UC Davis to establish what’s being called the Innovation Institute for Food and Health, which will be part of the World Food Center, a think tank devoted to pioneering breakthroughs in the linked realms of food, agriculture and health.

It turns out that Mars, Inc. has quite a history with UC Davis. The collaboration started almost forty years ago, and recently, in 2010, they partnered in a scientific research project that yielded—get ready for this—a completely sequenced cacao genome. Naturally. “Being a private, family-owned business provides Mars the freedom to undertake fundamental and applied scientific research in the areas where its business interests and society’s interests intersect,” goes the press release issued by UC Davis last Wednesday. “Mars’ range of multidisciplinary science and innovation projects have been enabled by uncommon collaboration with academic, government, nongovernment and industry partners.”

While it undoubtedly makes us a little seasick to see Big Food teaming up with academia in the name of research, especially food research, there’s no doubt that our ability to thrive in a world shaped and scarred by climate change will rely on our ability to understand a different intersection: that of sustainability and agriculture.

Sustainability is built into the mission of Davis’s World Food Center, so we see reason to be hopeful this partnership with Mars, which will unfold over the course of ten years, will yield the very insights we humans need to stay happy, healthy, and fed, in the future.