Dozens of advocates of community urban farming took over the university’s Gill Tract on Earth Day, April 22, establishing a camp and planting about two acres of vegetable crops. Their goal is to prevent development of this five-acre piece of land that represents one the few remaining agricultural spaces with the best (“class-one”) soil in the East Bay. This effort would allow the community to be engaged with the land, arguing that preserving it as a productive farm is consistent with public policy and the public interest. Such preservation would also honor the history of the Gill Tract, which has housed researchers who, since the 1940s, conducted research on biological pest control, protecting California agriculture from exotic pests without the use of chemical pesticides.
To many people, the actions taken by the farm advocates are consistent with the university’s education and public mission as a land grant institution with a Cooperative Extension function (the latter established in the Smith-Lever Act of 1914) to promote community involvement and initiatives in agriculture. Their actions are also consistent with California public policy, as set forth in Section 815 of the Civil Code, to preserve and protect open space, particularly agricultural land that has historical significance — such as the Gill Tract.
The UC Berkeley administration counters that the land being occupied is currently, and for the foreseeable future, being used as an open-air laboratory by the students and faculty of the College of Natural Resources for agricultural research. They argue that this use is part of a larger quest to provide a hungry planet with more abundant food, which will be impeded if the protest continues. (In fact, this is a poor argument, since hunger is not primarily related to production but much more to poverty and lack of access to land). Although university’s comments about not developing the five acres may be technically correct, they may be perceived as misleading for at least three reasons:
(i) Since the land’s purchase in 1928 (or, perhaps, its bequest to the university by the Gill family farm with the condition that it should be used forever as an agricultural research station), the university has parceled, sold off and developed about 90 percent of the 104-acre plot. Can a land grant university divert agricultural land to commercial or recreational uses? Does such diversion contradict the land grant mission of a public university?
(ii) The university has transferred the land from the College of Natural Resources to Capital Projects, its commercial arm that specializes in “development projects.”
(iii) The 2004 Master Plan, jointly worked out with the Albany City Council and Planning Commission, clearly states that the land has been redesignated from “academic reserve” to “recreation and open space,” which may mean baseball and soccer fields, parks or any number of recreational designations.
Does such redesignation guarantee the preservation of the land for an urban agriculture center? This is an idea that several professors, students, 45 nonprofit organizations and community members, organized under the Bay Area Coalition for Urban Agriculture (BACUA), presented in the form of a proposal to the university in February 2000. The proposal was for the creation of the world’s first university center on sustainable urban agriculture and food systems. The purposes of the center were to be to promote research, education, extension and outreach in the various environmental and socioeconomic dimensions of urban farming and sustainable food systems. This proposal was ignored by the university, and so was a later one, presented in 2005 by Urban Roots, to create the Village Creek Farm and Gardens, a farm that would provide Bay Area students from preschool to community college and university with an educational resource par excellence. Urban Roots argued at the time that the Center for Urban Agriculture at the Gill Tract offered UC Berkeley the opportunity to join other organizations and community members in teaching students and future urban dwellers these skills and the benefits of locally produced food. From these facts, it can be concluded that until now, the university has shown little to no interest in requests for community involvement and benefit from the exceptionally high-quality lands at the Gill Tract.
Last week, the university asserted in a statement: “We are passionate advocates of metropolitan agriculture projects that are well planned, sustainable and considerate of all members of our community. Representatives of the university are more than willing to meet with any interested community members to discuss proposals for metropolitan, sustainable agriculture.” The community group’s current action presents a golden opportunity for all within the university, including the newly created faculty- and student-based Center for Diversified Farming Systems, as well as nonprofit organizations working on food justice and urban agriculture and community members to revive the previous ideas for creating a center for sustainable urban farming.
Why is this important as we start the second decade of the new millennium?
The rapid urbanization that is taking place in the Bay Area goes hand in hand with a rapid increase in urban poverty and food insecurity, a situation aggravated by the economic crisis affecting California. Half a million people are at risk of hunger every month. About 38 percent of them are children, especially in summer, because low-income children who normally receive free or reduced lunches during the school year no longer have these meals. As a result, parents struggle to find the extra funds needed to provide healthy, nutritious meals for their children, even in the face of high unemployment. Many low-income urban residents in the Bay Area reside in “food deserts,” i.e. in areas having limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly in lower income neighborhoods and communities.
Urban agriculture plays a key role in enhancing urban food security, since the costs of supplying and distributing food from rural to urban areas, or to import food for the cities, are rising continuously, thus increasing urban food insecurity. Take Oakland as an example: In that city, publicly owned land with productive potential totals 1,201 acres. Food production with agro-ecological methods at these sites could potentially produce as much as 15 to 20 percent of Oakland’s fruit and vegetable needs. But to realize this potential, UC Berkeley first needs to recognize the potential of urban agriculture to help solve problems of hunger and unemployment and then launch a major research, education and extension program on urban agriculture that should involve local governments, urban farmers and the whole community in participatory ways so as to address the real needs of the poor and hungry. The benefits of urban agriculture go beyond producing food: They extend to the promotion of local economic development, poverty alleviation and social inclusion of the poor — and of women in particular. Urban agriculture also contributes to the urban ecosystem by greening the city, productively reusing urban wastes, conserving pollinators and wildlife and saving energy involved in the transport of food (in addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions!).
Let us transform the conflict potentially unfolding into a positive dialogue that will lead the university to continue carrying out its major mission of working with communities to serve the needs of the people of California. What could be more important than doing this around the issue of local food production?