Scientist Mourns Gill Tract’s Demise

Tuesday October 28, 2003

A splendid Indian Summer afternoon couldn’t dispel the dark cloud hovering over Saturday’s harvest festival at the East Bay’s last urban farm. 

Festivities continued despite last week’s news that UC Berkeley officials have ordered professors to cease all research Nov. 1 at the Gill Tract—a university-owned 14-acre agricultural plot on San Pablo Avenue bounded by Marin Street and Codornices Creek. 

Researchers have vowed to ignore the order that sets the stage for a development which will include a 650-room dormitory complex, a supermarket, unearthed creeks, and two ball fields where organic crops and genetically modified corn now grow. 

“I’m afraid I’m going to show up on Nov. 1 and they’ll have changed the lock on the gate,” said Miguel Altieri, a professor with UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources who has tilled the soil at the Gill Tract for 22 years. 

Altieri and his 12 students argue they should at least be able to finish their research on organic farming while the university prepares to start construction next summer, and they say the university has yet to offer a suitable replacement plot. 

UC Berkeley Senior Planner Jeff Bond said the university would provide a replacement plot on university property in Contra Costa County, a proposal that the researchers derided because it is inaccessible to students without cars and unsuitable for the study of urban agriculture. Bond would not comment on the potential for a deal that would keep researchers at the plot temporarily. 

Any compromise that would preserve some farmland as part of the development seems unlikely. 

The university nixed an architectural plan by a student group devoted to urban agriculture that would have preserved part of the plot by altering the project’s housing and parking schemes. 

“This is not an agricultural area,” Bond said. “We’ve looked at the plan from all sides and we think we have the mix that the community wants.” 

Altieri sees his banishment from the plot as part of a trend affecting professors whose research isn’t backed by corporations. 

Since he first started work at the Gill Tract, the university has shrunk his share of the plot from all of the six acres devoted to farming to 0.8 acres to make way for researchers testing genetically altered corn. 

“There’s been a huge shift in the last 10 years where corporations skim off the value of research,” he said, adding that while tax dollars pay for professor salaries and facilities, corporate money drives the scope of the research. 

“The public needs to tell the university if they want their tax dollars to go to sustainable urban agriculture or genetically modified crops,” he said. 

Altieri said he also fears that shunting him off to Contra Costa County is part of a move by UC Berkeley to de-emphasize applied agriculture. 

“They can’t fire me or make me retire, so they decrease my facilities,” he said. “When I’m gone there won’t be anyone here to continue the research.”