Students Protest the University of California’s War on Agroecology

by Jonathan Latham


As the students of the University of California, we come to you today to share our often silenced voices, our vision, and concerns we have about our common future. Our intention here is not to disrupt but rather to be present with you, share some stories, and to plant a hopeful seed in your hearts and minds as you enjoy this amazing food.

As documented in numerous studies, including a report from Food & Water Watch entitled “Public Research, Private Gain”, our University ­- a public trust and land grant college ­- faces an ever greater threat of privatization which deepens systemic racial and socioeconomic inequity.

The consequences of this are far reaching and cannot be overstated. There exists an Iron Triangle between industry, universities, and the state that has been consistently diverting funding, land, and other resources away from agroecology over the past half century and the threads of this academic repression pose a very direct threat to ASI (Agricultural Sustainability Institute) and SAREP (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program), to faculty in agroecology, to current and future students, and to higher education and civic society. We have big ideas and big dreams, but we won’t be able to realize them unless we face this big nightmare.

Gill Tract Farm March 2012
Gill Tract Farm March 2012

A recent exposé in the New York Times highlighted a series of internal UC emails released through the Freedom of Information Act (see appendix). These emails outline the working relationship of this iron triangle.

Some of the names contained within this thread involve many of the people at UC Berkeley intimately involved with the plans to destroy historical UC farmland, the Gill Tract Farm. In case you’re curious we have a list here, but we’ll just name one:

Steve Lindow, Executive Associate Dean of College of Natural Resources & Chair of the Oxford Facilities Unit in charge of Administering the Gill Tract Farm’s Research Facilities. Additionally, UCB Senior Planner at Capital Projects Jeff Bond switched over to Albany City Council, shepherding the same proposed Gill Tract development and predictably stonewalling the community outcry with his power of state.

He said that, rather than selling the property outright, they determined that UC Berkeley would “gain the most revenue from the property by contracting with private developers for a long­term ground lease.” He said, “This is not an agricultural area.”

Fact 1: This AGRICULTURAL AREA is one of the most famous UC Agricultural Experiment Station Facilities and is the site of a unique partnership with the USDA and the UC.

Fact 2: The land known today as the Gill Tract has been an ecologically rich AGRICULTURAL AREA for all of recorded history and was purchased by the UC using taxpayer dollars.

Fact 3: Research in this AGRICULTURAL AREA is world renowned and has saved literally tens of billions of dollars for the state and for multiple industries ­­ which is exactly why some industries are repressing this invaluable resource.

Given the pretenses of CA 1923 Statutes Chap. 311 under which the Gill Tract Farm was acquired by the UC “for use in connection with the department of agriculture of the university,” ​it is plausible that developing this land for private commercial use is illegal under CA law (though such a lawsuit has yet to be levied). The CA Legislature appropriated $100,000 taxpayer dollars to UC to buy land, build greenhouses, etc. for agricultural education close to the UC Berkeley campus. In 1928 UC used this capital to purchase the 104 acre Gill Family Farm with the understanding that it would be used as an agricultural research station in perpetuity.

This land is an integral part of the facilities in the U.C. Agricultural Experiment Station District facilities that are ​centrally-​administered by the VP of ANR​, the position currently held by Dr. Glenda Humiston.

Today, the Gill Tract is home to continuing agricultural research at not only the facilities in the U.C. Experiment Station District, but also the Western Regional Research Center of the USDA. The U.C. Experiment Station District represents a collaborative link between federal and University of California research interests.

The Division of Biological Control facilities at the Gill Tract were critical in conducting joint research with the USDA. This collaboration contributed to the development of biological control applications that have saved growers roughly 2 billion dollars during the past two decades. The continuing need for such research into the suppression of invasive weeds illustrates the value of the groundbreaking work conducted at the Gill Tract. In recent years the U.C. Experiment Station at the Gill Tract facilities have continued to receive funding for agricultural research. In 2000, UCB was a primary subcontractor for grant funds totaling 4 million dollars over three years to study biologically­-based control for the area­-wide management of exotic and invasive weeds. Generations to come will benefit from these reductions in pesticides pioneered at the Gill Tract.

The concept of integrated pest management was developed in great part due to the research conducted at the Gill Tract. The late Dr. Raymond F. Smith, Entomology Professor at UCB and pioneer in the field of IPM, in 1959 published a seminal paper entitled “The Integrated Control Concept.” This paper was hailed by the National Academy of Sciences as “the single most important paper published on crop protection in this century.”” This paper outlined the concepts of IPM that would be refined in research institutions and applied throughout the world to this day. This work, a primary contributor to concepts that save cotton farmers an estimated $1,000,000,000 per year, was directly based on earlier work in minimal chemical disturbance conducted at the Gill Tract, ­ research that dramatically advanced agroecology and that saved our state and many industries literally billions of dollars in pesticide costs (to speak nothing of the savings in public health and environmental costs).

One of the most striking examples of the successful use of biological control occurred as a direct result of laboratory research on the Gill Tract. Entomologist Carl Huffaker was charged with developing a way of controlling Klamath weed, also known as St. John’s wort. By 1944, the European Klamath weed had rapidly spread through the west and California, threatening some 2.25 million acres of range land, lowering average livestock weight, and seriously affecting the land’s grazing capacity. Eventually, due to plummeting land values, it was almost impossible to secure loans for land development using Klamath weed­-infested land as collateral. Huffaker was teamed with James Holloway of the USDA, and together their work was a spectacular success, resulting in the permanent control of the Klamath weed in the western states, with enormous benefits to the ranching industry. Land values immediately increased four­-fold. As of 1984, it was estimated that $79 million in savings were produced by the Albany Klamath weed program, and the benefits continue to be felt today. This program at the Gill Tract was the first of its kind in the United States to attempt biological control of an invasive weed and this success is responsible for fostering the establishment and expansion of biological noxious plant control in North America.

And yet, we’re told, “This is not an agricultural area.” We’re told that the use that would bring the most revenue to UC Berkeley would be the development of private rental housing. But consider how this land is valued by the UC system as a whole, by industry, and by public society:

We’re not told about the $79 million in savings produced by the Albany Klamath weed program.

We’re not told about the development of biological control applications that, have saved growers roughly $2 billion during the past two decades.

We’re not told that IPM research at the Gill Tract saves cotton farmers an estimated 1 billion dollars per year.

We’re not told that research at the Gill Tract brought in $4,000,000 in grant money to study biologically ­based control.

Instead we’re told the university wants to continue with its private development project to pave over the historic Gill Tract because it provides 300 more units ­­because private development will generate short term profits.

How does all this relate to ASI & to this board meeting, you ask?

We want to highlight the Role of the EAB in identifying high priority research, engaging in outreach and attending to teaching needs and program goals. We want to Invoke ASI’s 4 Operational Principles: practicing sustainability, legitimacy, usefulness, and credibility. ASI values “walking the talk” of practicing sustainability.

To bring this back to students: there is evidence showing that history and society is accounting for our actions and that we’re losing legitimacy, and therefore, future scholars-­­especially those interested in urban agroecology & food justice. As evidence of this, there is a 138­page Master’s thesis by a scholar from Humbolt slamming the UC & SAREP for not doing enough to support agroecology. We learn all this theory about ecosystem services, food justice, and localized food systems, but there’s a difference between theory vs praxis.

Are ASI and the UC walking the talk?

Secondly, ASI values legitimacy. Investment in agricultural research at the Gill Tract is in line with ASI’s commitment to legitimacy. Research at the Gill Tract is science in the public interest: it serves the entire state and all segments of agriculture and the food system. This land plays a historic, current, and future role in shaping agricultural and food systems and their effects on environment and society.

ASI operates on the principles of usefulness and responsiveness to stakeholders’ needs – including the broad interests of society as well as needs of specific groups to maintain relevance.

In ASI’s commitment to experiential learning, research and programs at the Gill Tract have the potential to internalize the value of learning-­by-­doing and actively integrate practical opportunities in educational programs, training, and outreach activities.

As students of sustainable agriculture and food systems, exposure to urban agroecology and food justice in a real-­life setting is crucial in binding praxis to theory. To share a testimonial from one of our fellow students that had the opportunity to experience this community-­engaged scholarship, she said: “Recognizing the absence of this within my own curriculum, I sought out this experience in an internship at the UC Gill Tract Community Farm this past summer. This experience was invaluable. Never before had I had the opportunity to explore the role an urban farm plays in a community rife with food insecurity, and only now am I just beginning to grasp how necessary and important urban agriculture is to a society where the existing food system is failing them.”

Lastly, ASI values credibility. Supporting research at the Gill Tract would promote critical analysis to challenge ‘conventional wisdom’ and expand our understanding of technical, institutional, and policy options using the best natural and social science methods available.

It would create and sustain mechanisms to identify and assess emerging opportunities and threats, based on scientific analyses and stakeholder input and informed by global trends.

Research at the Gill Tract has the opportunity to integrate economic, environmental, and social dimensions of sustainability.

We want to highlight Existing ASI Efforts in the East Bay near the Gill Tract. ASI lists, among its top 10 accomplishments, SAREP’s support for small-scale, beginning, and underserved farmers: With it’s First Youth-led Urban Ag Tour, building on SAREP’s ongoing business development programs.

We can’t just say, oh it’s UCB, it’s over there and they’re handling it because:

1. They’re not,
2. SAREP has a statewide mandate,
3. ASI/SAREP are engaged in urban farming research projects in areas that surround the Gill Tract,
4. Folks in ASI/SAREP work directly w/ folks working on the Gill Tract. It’s a short step away to integrate these existing relationships SAREP’s Deputy Director Gail Feenstra serves on the UC­ANR Urban Agriculture Team w/ Rob Bennaton & Jennifer Sowerwine who work with the Gill Tract Farm. Student Farm Director Mark Van Horn has been deeply involved with the Sustainable Living-­Learning Communities that provides an excellent model for the UC to understand the value proposition of the Gill Tract Mark serves on Global Food Initiative’s Subcommittee on Experiential Learning with UCB’s Jennifer Sowerwine & Ann Thrupp who planned to give Secretary of CDFA Karen Ross a tour of the Gill Tract Farm yesterday.

Students spoke w/ Karen Ross, ­­ she advised us to work with ASI on this, that this is an equity issue, and that this is an issue we should take on.

ASI & ANR are already Collaborating on Urban Ag. Yet while ASI & ANR are actively Mobilizing the Urban Agriculture Movement, the UC is simultaneously preparing to immobilize and erode our UC resources for Urban Agriculture. If we approach these big ideas in isolation, our efforts will deteriorate a moment later because we have ignored what they are connected to, taking a business­-as­-usual approach rather than an integrated systems approach. And technically, engaging with the Gill Tract Farm is part of SAREP’s CA legislative mandate. The duty of SAREP–to quote the legal mandate–includes “planning for and management of University of California farmlands committed to supporting long­term continuous research in sustainable agricultural practices and farming systems.”

The research conducted at the Gill Tract Biological Control Center in the mid 20th century laid the foundations for the legislation that created SAREP and the Biologically Integrated Farming Systems (BIFS) program. A former SAREP director, Sean Swezy, completed his graduate study at the Gill Tract (whom was also involved w/ the BIFS program) This pioneering research was highly controversial at the time due to the threats it posed to commercial interests, namely the pesticide industry. Though biological control has since been largely embraced and institutionalized, the broader field of agroecology is still met with resistance.

The controversy that was biological control then parallels the controversy that urban agroecology represents today ­­ along with all the opportunity, and funding that comes with embracing this controversy and rejecting privatization and corporate control. Now, THAT’s a BIG idea. We know it’s also a scary idea to stand up to this Systematic Repression of Agroecology. But again, we have to face this nightmare in order to realize our big ideas, our big dreams. We as students and community members cannot do it alone. We must face this together:

We’re sure many of you remember a famous book, Silent Spring, the change that it inspired, the reasons why it was written, the ways in which it has impacted your generation and the creation of this organization.

So what are we asking of you?

1) We are holding ASI accountable to its organizational values and SAREP to its legal mandate, Dr. Humiston, we recognize that you are in a uniquely powerful position of authority as VP of ANR and the central administrator for the U.C. Agricultural Experiment Station District.​Having just come from the USDA, who better to rekindle the partnership between the Gill Tract Farm and the neighboring Western Regional Research Center of the USDA which was built upon 15 acres of the original 104 acres purchased by the UC. Based on the ​Memorandum of Understanding ​that created ASI, SAREP’s ​Legislative Mandate​, & the VP of ANR’s ​Centralized Administrative Authority ​over the Agricultural Experiment Stations, We’re counting on you ​Dr. Humiston, Dean Dillard, & the leadership of ASI/SAREP​​ to work together to intervene ​with your direct authority over the lands in question​, & reinstate active USDA partnership in coordination w/ the existing Stewardship Council ​that includes community representatives.

2) ASI’s EAB provides substantial constituency that can support this: We can build greater partnership between professors such as Miguel Altieri & Amelie Gaudin. We can explore how this interfaces w/ EAB Member Ashley Boren’s work with Sustainable Conservation. We can engage Joann Lo, regarding the union­busting policies of the planned development’s Anchor tenant, Sprout’s Farmer’s Market (or as we like to call it, Sprouts “farmer­less market”), which undergirds industrial agriculture and exploitative labor systems. We can work w/ D’Artagnon Scorza, Andrew Baskin, & with Mark Van Horn’s position with Urban Tilth, along with Gail Feenstra & SAREP’s partners around the Gill Tract to implement programs for communities of Color.

Because this connects deeply with racial inequity that disproportionately impacts indigenous peoples and communities of color in the food system, working to stop this development and helping to pioneer a center for urban agroecology and food justice through an inter-­institutional collaboration that models cooperation and community­-engaged scholarship is a moral imperative. This is a concrete process that we propose for ASI ​to engage with immediately and to build rapport with community stakeholders ​facing some of the worst food insecurity and environmental injustice in CA​.

3.) Because ​Community Efforts at the Gill Tract Mirror Statewide Policy Goals​, we propose that ASI/SAREP/ANR ​work w/ students & community stakeholders in articulating the ​holistic​ value proposition of the Gill Tract for the state of California and engage with students in community more often for constructive and valuable critical feedback​. Invoking the logic often used for the creation of cooperatives (for example, horizontal coordination for vertical integration), both ASI & the UC Community Gill Tract Farm need funding & greater community engagement & rapport. Efforts can combine to create a value proposition for funding that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

The task of our generation with Sustainable Agriculture is not small and this is a question of intergenerational justice. Generations before yours paid for farmland at the Gill Tract with taxpayer dollars and it is for research and education in agriculture. Please hear us and link this knowledge with right action. We are the seeds of ASI. We care about it’s future as a critical resource as we care about the UC Gill Tract Farm’s future as a critical resource for generations to come. We need the farmland we have for real sprouts that won’t be paved over by a strip mall w/a greenwashed Sprouts grocery store that undergirds industrial agriculture. As an Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, we’re depending on you to walk the talk just as the future generations are depending on us right now. We hope that the seeds that we’re planting with you today will take root in your hearts and minds and be given the chance to not merely seek out the cracks in the pavement, but to thrive and blossom.

The appendices to this letter can be found here.

Further reading: The killing fields: Science and politics at Berkeley, California, USA. by Bruce Jennings (1997).

Aware of the potential risks and consequences of speaking out, the group of students who authored the Open Letter have requested anonymity as a precautionary measure for their own protection. Self-described as “Students 4 Food Justice”, these students are aware that even tenured faculty have been targeted by industry for speaking out or conducting research (ie: in agroecology & related fields) that threatens the interests of multinational corporations who “offer” considerable funding to the UC. Such repression is exemplified by the case of Tyrone Hayes, as has been documented in national press, and by efforts to deny tenure to Ignacio Chapela. Having no such socioeconomic standing and status as these internationally renown scholars to act as a buffer, students fear similar reprisal. In light of the information contained within the appendix highlighting the “Iron Triangle” between the university, industry, and the state; and at a time when whistleblowers are routinely targeted and silenced, students believe this concern to be thoroughly justified – though they lament the conditions that warrant the need for anonymity. Students 4 Food Justice welcome solidarity and support and may be contacted at [email protected].

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Comments 2
  • Who are the students who are protesting? I searched the text and the appendices but did not see that anyone at all has signed this letter or claimed authorship. What are we to make of an apparently unsigned protest letter?

  • Thank you to all of you who contributed to writing this email. Our world is in desperate need of people like you who see the big picture, recognize wrong doing and call a spade a spade. Instead of whining about being offended by words or hollowed costumes on campus you have identified issues and individuals at the root of problem on your campus, and you proposed real world solutions. Congrats to you all, really nice work!!

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