Breaking Bread

Growing Sustainable Foods in the Face of a Changing Global Climate

As Alena Andrews (Anthropology and Geography, ’21) embarked on her senior project, she knew that she wanted to focus on the environment and sustainable food systems, which led her to Nick Williams, a lecturer in the Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences Department.

Under his mentorship, Andrews crafted a thesis focused on creating more resilient food systems in the face of a changing climate. The more than eight-month research collaboration sparked a journey that came full circle, from meeting with local farmers and growing and hand-harvesting wheat at Cal Poly’s Experimental Farm, to baking bread with a small, organic bakery that uses whole grains and seasonal ingredients.

Andrews conducted an experimental organic wheat variety trial at the Experimental Farm, a two-acre campus farm and garden that serves as a hands-on living laboratory for Cal Poly students, faculty and staff, to further understand the process of local crop selection in San Luis Obispo County. She chose the wheat crop because of its adaptability. After talking with local farmers and exploring ideas of local crop selection in San Luis Obispo County, Andrews partnered with plant breeders at UC Davis to get several of the seeds. In the end, five grain varieties were planted, including three experimental varieties, as a test for local adaptation.

“I had the broad goal of making the food system in San Luis Obispo County more resilient to climate change by finding crops that would adapt as the climate becomes hotter and dryer,” Andrews said. “It will become increasingly important to select crops that can adapt to changing climate conditions but will also serve the community.”

Williams, whose research is focused on examining the ways in which sociopolitical, economic and ecological changes influence human-environmental relationships with a particular interest in food systems, emphasized the community component of the project. “We can do all the research in the world to find grains that are drought tolerant, but if they aren’t what people will consume, we aren’t fully achieving our goals,” he said. “The links between production and consumption and between producers and consumers are often overlooked.”

The wheat varieties, planted in November 2020 and tended to until June, were then hand-harvested by Andrews and Williams. And while it was clear at that point which varieties thrived, which were plagued by diseases, and which were easier to process — the final stage of using the grains to bake bread would tell the full story. Andrews connected with Bread Bike, a San Luis Obispo based bakery that bakes organic, naturally leavened sourdough bread using California grown grains and wheat and delivers it by bicycle in San Luis Obispo. Together, Andrews, Williams and the Bread Bike team spent an afternoon transforming the various wheat varieties into loaves of bread.

Top: Experimental wheat varieties growing at the
Cal Poly Experimental Farm.
Middle: Alena Andrews with harvested wheat.
Bottom: Bread loaves baked with the
experimental wheat.

“Does it taste good? If not, it may not be worth it to grow from the standpoint of a cultural and social connection,” Andrews said. “Once we did the milling and baking process and tasted the results, we quickly learned that the yield didn’t matter as much as the taste.” To fully create more resilient food systems in the face of a changing climate, the community can’t be overlooked, she said. By incorporating the experiences of local farmers growing crops in changing environmental conditions and educating the community on the value of local, sustainable food systems, the science of growing food gains the support a strong social and cultural connection. It is then, when science and community break bread, that the future becomes more sustainable.


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