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UC should conduct ecologically-based research

By Josh Miner
Tuesday November 20, 2001

I was happy to see Hank Sims’ article on the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources’ (CNR) proposal for developing the Gill Tract. Located on San Pablo in northwest Albany, the Gill Tract is the largest intact piece of agricultural land left in the Bay Area. The politics surrounding the CNR’s approach to agricultural research helps to understand their lack of interest in keeping the Gill Tract as a resource for conducting ecologically-based research. 

When the College of Natural Resources reorganized its departments a decade ago, the Division of Biological Control faculty, which was housed at the Gill Tract and engaged in ecologically-based and non-chemical approaches to agricultural pest control, became a small division in the department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management (ESPM). At the same time, most agriculture research shifted to the newly founded department of Plant and Microbial Biology (PMB), with a strong focus on technological and genomic research -- especially the rapidly growing field of agricultural biotechnology. 

This basically separated agricultural research at UC Berkeley, folding the ecologically-based faculty into the entomology division in ESPM, while the plant genomics faculty became a significant part of another department. Soon after, the College was offered $50 million for an exclusive partnership with Novartis, one of the largest agricultural biology corporations in the world. In exchange for a cash infusion to fund plant genomic and agricultural biotechnology research, Novartis would be given proprietary ownership of all research conducted under the deal. Novartis would get exclusive access to the CNR brain trust, and CNR would get desperately needed funding. Faculty members even had to sign agreements not to publish their results without prior consent from Novartis.  

Regardless of what we think about the way private-sector research is conducted, it seems obvious that because profitability and public interest often don’t mesh, we need research that occurs outside the private sector, to assess potential benefits and problems associated with the application of such research. This is especially true for fields with high potential for impacts on human health and the environment – pharmaceutics, chemicals, and agriculture.  

UC Berkeley could fill this role perfectly by engaging in all manner of research, not emphasizing one field or approach over another. If Novartis wants to find and patent a gene that makes the business of growing corn more profitable, fine (or not, depending on your perspective). Institutions like UC Berkeley should focus on whether such applications are safe and/or necessary, not act as the R&D division of a corporation. In this context, research might focus on whether pest damage is better controlled with biodiversity or genetic manipulation. Research that has such obvious and far-reaching potential impacts – on ourselves and the planet – must be carried out in the public interest somewhere.  

This is why the Bay Area Coalition for Urban Agriculture wanted CNR to create a center for urban agriculture and sustainable food systems research at the Gill Tract. This would have begun to balance inequities between plant genomic and ecological agricultural research at UC Berkeley. It is sad to see the College of Natural Resources throw away the opportunity to devote a unique piece of land to alternative agricultural research, and thus abdicating its responsibility to the public. At the same time, PMB is flourishing, with a research focus that coincides perfectly with the interests of agribusiness.  

It looks like the Gill Tract will be used to house students and provide a shopping venue. We can still ask where is the research into urban food production, tailored to local microclimates and using of rooftops, greenhouses, and rainwater? Or into the relationship between social inequity and food insecurity? One thing is for sure -- it’s not going on in the College of Natural Resources. 


Josh Miner has worked as an organizer for the Bay Area Coalition for Urban Agriculture and now coordinates Farm Fresh Choice, a combined community food security and sustainable agriculture project in West and South Berkeley. He is also an entering graduate student in the department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management within the College of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley.