Berkeley must preserve its agricultural legacy

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Katherine Qiu/Staff

In light of climate change, failures in industrial agriculture, increased energy costs and demographic pressure, as well as multinational corporations’ increased control of the food system, we need to restore Berkeley’s public mission to prepare the new generation of scientists and practitioners with the necessary skills to tackle the challenges facing our food systems. It is not well-known that Berkeley is a land-grant university (established by the federal government on public land under the Morrill Act of 1862) whose mission 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, but not so in the last two decades. The university belongs to all Californians, and therefore the public has the right to demand that agricultural research is reshaped to provide practical and accessible solutions to the grave ecological and social problems affecting us all.

What we need is the kind of research conducted by entomologists at the Division of Beneficial Insect Investigations in 1944, which was changed to the Division of Biological Control, established in 1946. This program used beneficial insects instead of pesticides to control crop pests. Since its creation, biocontrol research has saved California farmers nearly $2 billion in reduced pesticide use by introducing beneficial insects that solved pest problems permanently. The program also saved California residents by reducing pesticide-related health and environmental externalities. We need more of this type of research in soils, plant pathology and agroecology that yields innovations that are considered free public goods, that make our farms more resilient and autonomous and, more importantly, that make them not owned or patented by any company.

The epoch of science for the people declined at UC Berkeley when the proportion of the university budget funded by state moneys decreased and our administrators began encouraging university–industry partnerships that did not necessarily prioritize innovations for the public good. This is when my own College of Natural Resources started encouraging projects funded by multinational biotechnology agribusinesses that, under special deals, funneled huge amounts of cash into the campus, thus transforming UC Berkeley’s public agricultural research mission and infrastructure forever.

In spite of its contributions to society, the biocontrol unit where I worked for 16 years was dismantled in 1995. We saw Berkeley’s agricultural research become rapidly dominated by the biotechnology industry — with research products being more about enhancing the corporations’ profits than solving environmental problems. Businesses looked to profit rather than researching the environmental impacts of industrial farming, agricultural resilience to climate change or reducing hunger and food insecurity. This is paradoxical, as more than 39 percent of undergraduate students within the UC system experience food insecurity. I do not think the innovations that emerged from the $500 million BP-funded project addressed this shameful reality. In my opinion, it was not a public good that solved a pressing societal need.

Our university officials continue to affirm that corporate engagement in research is critical if UC Berkeley is to continue its cutting-edge work. Special access to agricultural research facilities is tailored to the needs of corporate-funded research — at times precluding, because of high fees, use of such facilities by researchers conducting alternative agriculture research that could benefit an increasing number of food-insecure people in the Bay Area. In fact, my research colleagues on agroecology and urban agriculture will have no land to conduct research, as the university has plans to develop the 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 and as tools to make the dominant industrial agriculture model a little bit more sustainable.

Development of the land tract represents, in my opinion, a direct betrayal of UC Berkeley’s public agricultural mission. The tract was purchased in the 1920s with funds partially provided by the State Treasury for use in connection with the then-existing UC Department of Agriculture. Several reports written in the 1940s by UC administrators stated that it was essential for the teaching and research programs at UC Berkeley and that its loss would seriously impair the agricultural activities now centered on the campus. This was true then and is true now more than ever, with increasing student demand for classes related to food and agriculture.

By 2030, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities, which need to import huge amounts of food on a daily basis. Given this scenario, we need to intensify research on urban agriculture at the tract, as this is crucial if we are to scale up sustainable and resilient alternatives that enhance food sovereignty in our urbanized Bay Area and on our planet. This is particularly relevant today, as climate change will greatly reduce crop yields in rural areas of California experiencing more frequent and severe droughts.  

UC 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.

Miguel Altieri is the former president of the Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecology and professor emeritus of agroecology at UC Berkeley.