Food-safety scientist Devon Zagory
From before your produce is picked to when it meets your mouth, a minefield of microorganisms lies in wait. CNR alumnus Devon Zagory works to keep nature's healthiest foods from making you sick.
I came to Cal as a transfer student and practically flunked out of college because of appalling academic performance. Eventually a friend and I dropped out, went down to University Ave. with our long hair, backpacks, and bell-bottom pants, and stuck out our thumbs to hitchhike around the world. We bummed around Europe and beyond, and I spent a summer working on a farm in southern France. An American family had bought the farm and put an ad in the Daily Californian asking students to come work in exchange for room and board. They had socialist leanings and were interested in social experimentation, and each day they put out boxes of food—you know, bread and salami and peaches —and you’d just go and take what you needed. Our instructions were to figure out what needed doing and do it.
The sweet tomatoes on your salad, the crisp lettuce in your sandwich, the shiny apple in your kid's lunch pail. Vitamins, antioxidants, fiber: all good stuff. But from before your produce is picked to when it meets your mouth, a minefield of microorganisms lies in wait. CNR alumnus Devon Zagory works to keep nature's healthiest foods from making you sick.
I was in the vineyard one day and noticed something going on with the leaves. They had this white stuff growing on them, so I tried to learn about it and kind of took it on myself to be in charge of plant health and making sure the vineyards were okay. I later learned that the problem was mildew, and that regular applications of sulfur would address it.
Working on that farm, along with traveling across Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa and the Americas, is what brought me to agriculture. I saw a lot of deprivation, a lot of hunger, a lot of terrible poverty and disease—especially in Pakistan and India. I didn’t want to be a farmer per se, but when I eventually came back to Berkeley I wanted to study agriculture to work in the developing world and help people. It was very naïve, but that’s what I wanted to do.
I re-entered school and discovered the College of Agriculture, which is now the College of Natural Resources. It was like finding a family. Previously I’d gotten kind of lost in this huge campus. Now I discovered this college where people were really accessible and wanted to help me.
During my studies in agriculture I took classes in plant pathology. I met Professors Dick Parmeter and Fields Cobb and I loved learning from them. They taught me so much, not just about plant pathology, but about life, about ethics, about professionalism. When I was in graduate school studying plant pathology, I also took a lot of ag-econ classes, which were fascinating. I took everything that Alain de Janvry and Dick Norgaard taught on natural resources and developing economies. One of the things we talked about a lot when I was in graduate school was human population growth. If you’d asked me then about the future, I would have said with absolute confidence that by the turn of the century there would be mass famine. Agriculture science couldn’t possibly keep up with population growth. The future seemed grim.
When I finished graduate school, I took a job with the University of Florida, working in rural Argentina on citrus diseases. I was going into the developing world to help address a disease that was threatening the entire local economy. But after a couple of years there, I learned a few things. One of them was that, while there’s absolutely a lot of poverty and deprivation and hunger in the world, it’s not due to a lack of agriculture scientists finding ways to provide enough food. In fact, the green revolution hugely increased our ability to produce grains. It turns out there’s plenty of food in the world. The problem is the inability of many of the world’s people to pay for it.
I also learned that living in rural villages in developing countries was maybe not such a good life. So I had a change of dreams.
Upon returning from South America I settled in Davis with my wife, and worked at UC Davis for about five years, largely in post-harvest handling of fruits and vegetables and ornamentals. I did a lot of work on packaging techniques to increase quality and shelf-life, and that’s how I got started in consulting. And so when we started Davis Fresh Technologies, we mainly intended to help people in the produce industry maintain quality and shelf life.
We rapidly found our clients asking us if we could help them with food safety. If you intend to sell fruits or vegetables to almost any large supermarket or restaurant chain, you need to show that you have a system to prevent contamination of your fruits and vegetables with Salmonella, E-coli, Hepatitis A, and other human pathogens. We developed an auditing program and now, six years in, food safety auditing is probably 40 percent of our business. I have offices in six countries and projects all over the world.
I have not entirely abandoned the idealism of my grad school days. I haven’t devoted myself to a mission the way I thought I would, but in the course of my consulting career, I have done projects in India, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Mali, China, Thailand, Brazil, Peru... lots of places.
We just finished a project we worked on for a couple of years. It was a USAID-funded project for national development in Moldova, a tiny country tucked between Romania and the Ukraine. As a Soviet republic, Moldova was a major supplier of fresh fruits and vegetables to the U.S.S.R. But with the fall of the Soviet Union, Moldova’s economy and infrastructure just collapsed. Today it’s the poorest country in Europe. They’ve got beautiful soil, good quality water, and a decent climate for growing fruits and vegetables, but their agricultural production is about 15 percent of what it was in 1992. The project, which is ongoing, is basically to resurrect the export horticultural industry.
Zagory is cofounder and a senior vice president of Davis Fresh Technologies, a global consulting agency that provides guidance and food safety audits to fresh produce companies. He earned his B.S. in agricultural sciences in 1974, and an M.S. in 1978 and Ph.D. in 1981, both in plant pathology.
My view that’s different now than when I was in Alain de Janvry’s classes is that markets can be a beautiful thing. Markets are self-assembling; if you allow the conditions to exist where a market can happen, it will happen. But there are many cases where markets are prevented from operating by governments, by organized crime, or by cultures that say “you can’t sell here, you can sell there.” And markets are what Moldova is missing; the people don’t have experience thinking in those terms. As a Soviet Republic, their role was to meet quotas on big collective farms—you know: “Your job is to get 10,000 tons of apples to the Red Army.” And it didn’t matter if they were ripe or not or if they had worms—as long as there were 10,000 tons. The task in Moldova today, and elsewhere in the developing world, is to help people connect with markets, to produce and deliver what the market wants. In this way economies can develop. Will markets solve all the problems of rural poverty? Of course not. But without them, the cycle of poverty cannot be broken. I can’t fix everything, but I think that in my consulting career I have contributed in some small way.
I think that as you get older your horizons get a little bit closer. I’m no longer 23 years old, thinking I’m going to feed the hungry of the world. I couldn’t do that anyway. But I like to think I played a small role, and that I make a living doing something that, I hope, helps people.