Gill Tract occupiers’ sustainability ideas are wrong-headed

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The food movement is vibrant at UC Berkeley. On the weekend of April 21, a group of locals — including some students and faculty members — began an ongoing occupation and planting of the Gill Tract farmland that was about to be plowed and cultivated for federally funded UC researchers to propagate their corn and other experimental plants, as they have on the site each year for the 40 years I’ve been a professor here. The occupiers feel that urban gardening is a more important use of this unique farmland than is outdoor crop plant research. Are they correct?The occupiers have some wrong-headed ideas about food, agriculture and the utility of industrial farming. Similarly, the university’s own Michael Pollan’s essay that identifies a “Food Movement Rising,” New York Review of Books, June 10, 2010, also advances wrong notions about what foods, when eaten, can be good for the planet and what foods are more like petroleum (“oil”).  By that I mean most so-called foods take more energy inputs to make than we get back from them as calories, protein or nutrients. Eating such foodlike stuff is energy-equivalent to eating fossil fuel. Eating a tomato or a beefsteak is certainly like eating oil. Eating a corn tamale with beans is certainly eating real food. The most efficient food crop for capturing the sun’s energy as carbs and protein is industrialized feed corn, and also efficient are the other kernels, seeds and nuts when grown, harvested and shipped dry using an economy of scale. Chickens and eggs are real food only because the birds eat efficient, industrial feed. These are facts, not opinions.Organic is good, right? Well, if pesticides are misused, they can contaminate food, and the rules defining “organic” could protect us. However, these same rules value crop rotation rather than using “chemical” fertilizers, and it is fair to say that using any more land to make our food than we already do will further increase already sky-high extinction rates. Each rotated field doubles the land needed to grow food;  repeated use of the same land need not wear it out! Loss of habitat is the single most important cause of elevated rates of extinction. The organic brand does make room for small local farmers to compete and educates city folks in the ways of the farm, but please don’t think “organic” is good for the planet. And what about “local”?  Truth is, transportation costs for recreational food (like tomatoes) do matter but are  a drop in the bucket of energy inputs for industrial, efficient food.

“Monoculture” lowers crop “biodiversity.” These are big words with negative connotations that keep coming up in the propaganda pieces of the food movement. The reason acres of land are planted with the same crop is so they can be treated exactly the same and harvested on the same perfect day, thus maximizing yield (energy efficiency = minimize inputs and maximize outputs). Monoculture increases risk of crop disease, but there is no risk to biodiversity. (Using the word “biodiversity” must bring with it risk of extinction, and this is not the correct word to use with crops. Crops have their highly valued, diverse germplasms in banks). Removing “the corporation” from agriculture removes the energy efficiency and removes the possibly of the eating of any animal food being different from eating oil.  The developing middle class of the world votes unequivocally to eat more chickens.

I personally love the idea of the woodlot. A modern pioneer owns 40 acres of mixed forest, and with the wood that grows sustainably from the sun’s energy each year, she fires a modern, EPA-certified, Energy Star wood-burning stove that heats the off-the-grid cabin, boils water and is a stove-top. To think that most of our 7 billion people on Earth could live like this is beyond ignorant. There are two reasons our food supply has kept pace with population growth (in everywhere but sub-Saharan Africa), and they’re improved genetic technology and industrialization. “Heritage crops” grown in urban gardens make hobby-food but can contribute almost nothing to feeding the world without using way more land and energy. Much of the “food movement” is about well-off people needing something. What?

I’ve studied the food movement for nine years now and discuss this topic every year with my Plant and Microbial Biology 13 students here at UC Berkeley. I think I’ve found the real need that drives the food movement, and it’s primarily not about food at all but distrust and fear (or hate?) of corporations. I do not like the corporatization of my life, my university or my food. Corporatization seems dehumanizing to me. However, I’m one of 7 billion living in a rapidly warming 21st century. We made way too many babies for our small planet. I hope we regular people learn how to better control our agricultural corporations, but we really should admit how much we need agribusiness for energy efficiency (and that we are getting just what we deserve!). We did not and do not need all of our people! In about 1924, our Earth had 2 billion people on it, and it will again someday. Until then, I suggest that those interested in food learn the facts and the realities. When we do, I trust we all will find the reasoning of the occupiers of the Gill Tract and the activists of the the food movement to be well-meaning but ultimately not properly addressing how we need to produce food. Perhaps fears of monster corporations and dreams of a more egalitarian politic have clouded their minds. Fears and dreams won’t get us out of our pickle.

Because of basic research, we are learning how plants work. In my opinion, crops will either be genetically upgraded or they will fail to produce in our hotter, drier, degraded future (with economic collapse possible). Basic research is — or was — going on at the university’s Gill Tract. Dr. Damon Lisch, in my lab, with the support of the National Science Foundation, hopes to plant his seed at the tract in about three weeks. I’d like to see Dr. Lisch’s and similar cutting-edge research valued by my university and all people.

Michael Freeling is a professor in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology.