Berkeley: The Betrayal of an Agricultural Legacy

Miguel Altieri | 11.19.2018

Cover Photo: Miguel Altieri speaking at “Occupy the Farm.”

The University of California-Berkeley is a land-grant university, established by the federal government on public land under the Morrill Act  of 1862. The idea of the land grants was to generate agricultural research that benefited society as a whole. For the first century that mission was honored by the agricultural experiment station at Berkeley. One component of that mission was the Division of Biological Control established in 1944 at the Gill Tract in Albany, California. The Division was modeled after the highly successful control of the cottony cushion scale by the ladybug Vedalia beetle, that threatened to destroy the citrus industry in 1886. Since the establishment of the Division, biocontrol research has saved California farmers more than 2 billion dollars in reduced pesticide use by introducing beneficial insects that solved the problems permanently. It is estimated that in addition to regulating pests biologically, the activities of the Division of Biological Control saved California residents hundreds of millions of dollars by reducing pesticide related health and environmental externalities that in the US today are greater than 10 billion dollars per year. Similar public science benefits were accrued from research in soils, plant pathology and agroecology—contributions considered public resources not owned or patented by any company. Biological control and agroecological innovations were largely free, public goods that made farms more resilient and autonomous.

As costs began to rise and the proportion of the university budget funded by state money declined, starting in the 1980s,  Berkeley began to encourage university-industry partnerships that did not necessarily prioritize innovations for the public domain.  This was the beginning of the restructuring of the College of Natural Resources, which included the dismissal of staff and the reassignment of staff and resources to projects funded by emerging biotechnology multinational agribusiness (Novartis, BP, etc)  which made special deals with the College and the University as they funneled huge amounts of cash into the Campus, transforming UCB’s public agricultural research mission and infrastructure forever. Despite of its contributions to the public good, the Division of Biological Control was dismantled in 1995 by campus administration. Berkeley’s agricultural research had become dominated by the biotechnology industry and its local academic allies—with the products that emerge from the process being more about enhancing corporations’ profits than solving environmental problems linked to industrial farming, making our agriculture more resilient to climate change, reducing numbers of invasive species, and reducing hunger and food insecurity. It is paradoxical that within our Campus, 39 percent of undergraduate and 23 percent of graduate students at UC Berkeley experienced either “low” or “very low” food security. No innovations  that emerged from the $500 million BP project addressed this shameful reality and none can be considered a public good which solved a pressing societal need. In fact, research results conducted in the public labs of the University remain the property of BP and can be used at their discretion to make more profits.

University officials and researchers (all public servants) that benefit from such arrangements continue to affirm that corporate engagement in research is critical if Berkeley is to continue its cutting-edge work. Special access to agricultural research facilities (labs, greenhouses, field space, etc) is tailored to the needs of corporate funded research ( i.e. increasing fees for use of facilities, hand picked committees that determine who uses the facilities, etc) limiting possibilities for researchers to use such facilities to conduct alternative agriculture research which potentially could benefit increasing numbers of urban and rural poor and food insecure people in the Bay Area and beyond. In fact, researchers on agroecology and urban agriculture will have no land to conduct research, as the University has plans to develop both the Gill Tract and Oxford Tract. Such loss of field space is of no concern to biotechnology researchers, as most of their work on genetic engineering, genomics and synthetic biology can be done in laboratories, all aimed at developing a set of false solutions to the climate and hunger crisis while serving as tools to make the dominant industrial agriculture model a “little bit more sustainable”.

Development of these two tracts of land into buildings (the last tracts of top arable land in the east Bay) represent a direct betrayal of Berkeley’s public agricultural mission.  Both the Gill Tract and Oxford Tract were purchased in the 1920’s with funds partially provided by the State Treasury (under Chapter 311, Statutes of 1923) for use in connection with the then existing Department of Agriculture of the University. Several letters and reports written  between 1945 and 1955 by various Deans and committees in charge of agriculture land and facilities stated that both tracts were essential for the teaching and research programs at Berkeley and that the loss of such facilities would seriously impair the agricultural activities now centered on the Campus.  This was true then and now more than ever with increasing student demand of classes related to food and agriculture such as urban agriculture, agroecology and others.

As multinational corporations increase their control of the food system in light of climate change, failures in industrial agriculture, increased energy costs and demographic pressure, the restoration of the public mission of the land grant University and its public resources is key to prepare the new generation of scientists and practitioners with the necessary skills to tackle the challenges facing our food systems. By 2030, 60% of the world’s urban population will live in cities, including 56% of the world’s poor and 20% of the undernourished. Today, for a city with 10 million people or more, over 6,000 tons of food has to be imported every day, traveling an average of 1,000 miles. Given these scenarios, intensifying research on urban agriculture (UA) at both tracts will be crucial if we are to scale up sustainable and resilient alternatives that enhance food sovereignty in our urbanized Bay Area and on our planet.

The land grant University belongs to all Californians, and therefore we are in our right to demand that it is reshaped to provide practical and accessible solutions to the ecological and social problems affecting us all. Berkeley is still a public University, but its actual endeavors are mostly at the service of big capital. The challenge is to revert this reality.


An edited and abridged version of this article was originally posted on the Daily Californian. This publication with Food First contains the full version of that article.