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Altieri Op-Ed: Gill Tract Occupation Offers Solution for Key Issues

Professor Miguel Altieri shared this letter with Albany Patch on Monday. Click the "Keep me posted" button below for updates.

How to turn the “occupy the UC Gill Tract” conflict into an opportunity for resolving key food, environmental and social problems affecting our Bay Area urban communities?

By Miguel A. Altieri, Professor of Agroecology, College of Natural Resources, UC Berkeley and Claudia J. Carr, Associate Professor, Environmental Science, Policy and Management, UC Berkeley 

Dozens of advocates of community urban farming took over UC’s Gill Tract on Earth Day, April 22, establishing a camp and planting about two acres of vegetable crops. Their goal is to prevent development of this five-acre piece of land that represents one the few remaining agricultural spaces with the best ("class-one") soil in the East Bay. This effort would allow the community to be engaged with the land, arguing that preserving it as a productive farm is consistent with public policy and the public interest. Such preservation would also honor the history of the , which has housed researchers who, since the 1940s, conducted research on biological pest control, protecting California agriculture from exotic pests without the use of chemical pesticides.

To many people, the actions taken by the farm advocates are consistent with the University’s education and public mission as a Land Grant institution with a Cooperative Extension function, (the latter established in the Smith-Lever Act of 1914), to promote community involvement and initiatives in agriculture. Their actions are also consistent with California public policy as set forth in section 815, to preserve and protect open space, particularly agricultural land that has historical significance—such as the Gill Tract.  

The UC Berkeley administration counters that the land being occupied is currently, and for the foreseeable future, being used as an of the College of Natural Resources for agricultural research. They argue that this use is part of a larger quest to provide a hungry planet with more abundant food, which will be impeded if the protest continues. (In fact, this is a poor argument, since hunger is not primarily related to production but much more to poverty and lack of access to land). Although UC's comments about not developing the five acres may be technically correct, they may be perceived as misleading for at least three reasons: 

(i) since its purchase in 1928 (or, perhaps, its bequest to UC by the Gill family farm with the condition that it should be used forever as an agricultural research station), UC has parceled, sold off, and developed about 90 percent of the 104 acre plot. Can a land grant University divert agricultural land to commercial or recreational uses? Does such diversion contradict the land grant mission of a public University?

(ii) UC has transferred the land from the College of Natural Resources to UCB Capital Projects, its commercial arm which specializes in “development projects”; and 

(iii) the 2004 Master Plan, jointly worked out with the and , clearly states that the land has been re-designated from "academic reserve" to "recreation and open space" which may mean baseball and soccer fields, parks or any number of recreational designations.

Does such redesignation guarantee the preservation of the land for an urban agriculture center? This is an idea that several professors, students, 45 non-profit organizations and community members, organized under the Bay Area Coalition for Urban Agriculture (BACUA), presented in the form of a proposal to the University in February 2000. The proposal was for the creation of the world's first university center on sustainable urban agriculture and food systems. The purposes of the Center were to promote research, education, extension and outreach in the various environmental and socioeconomic dimensions of urban farming and sustainable food systems.  

This proposal was ignored by the University, and so was a later one, presented in 2005 by Urban Roots, to create the Village Creek Farm and Gardens, a farm that would provide Bay Area students from preschool to community college and university with an educational resource par excellence. Urban Roots argued at the time that a Center for Urban Agriculture at the Gill Tract offered UC Berkeley the opportunity to join other organizations and community members in teaching students and future urban dwellers these skills and the benefits of locally produced food. From these facts, it can be concluded that, until now, the University has shown little or no interest in requests for community involvement and benefit from the exceptionally high quality lands at the Gill Tract. 

Last week UC asserted in a statement: “We are passionate advocates of metropolitan agriculture projects that are well planned, sustainable and considerate of all members of our community. Representatives of the university are more than willing to meet with any interested community members to discuss proposals for metropolitan, sustainable agriculture.” The community group’s current action presents a golden opportunity for all within UC, including the newly created faculty and student based Center for Diversified Farming Systems, as well as non-profit organizations working on food justice and urban agriculture and community members, to revive the previous ideas for creating a Center for sustainable urban farming. 

Why is this important as we start the second decade of the new Millennium? 

The rapid urbanization that is taking place in the Bay Area goes hand in hand with a rapid increase in urban poverty and food insecurity, a situation aggravated by the economic crisis affecting California. Half a million people are at risk of hunger every month. About 38 percent of them are children, especially in summer, because low-income children who normally receive free or reduced lunches during the school year no longer have these meals. As a result, parents struggle to find the extra funds needed to provide healthy, nutritious meals for their children, even in the face of high unemployment. Many low-income urban residents in the Bay Area reside in “food deserts,” i.e. in areas having limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly in lower income neighborhoods and communities.  

Urban agriculture plays a key role in enhancing urban food security, since the costs of supplying and distributing food from rural to urban areas, or to import food for the cities, are rising continuously, thus increasing therefore urban food insecurity. Take Oakland as an example: in that city publicly owned land with productive potential totals 1,201 acres. Food production with agroecological methods at these sites could potentially produce as much as 15 to 20 percent of Oakland’s fruit and vegetable needs.

But to realize this potential, UC Berkeley first needs to recognize the potential of urban agriculture to help solve problems of hunger and unemployment, and then launch a major research, education and extension program on urban agriculture that should involve local governments, urban farmers and the whole community in participatory ways, so as to address the real needs of the poor and hungry. 

The benefits of urban agriculture go beyond producing food: They extend to the promotion of local economic development, poverty alleviation and social inclusion of the poor—and of women, in particular. Urban agriculture also contributes to the urban ecosystem by greening the city, productively reusing urban wastes, conserving pollinators and wildlife, and saving energy involved in the transport of food (in addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions!). 

Let us transform the conflict potentially unfolding into a positive dialogue that will lead the University to continue carrying out its major mission of working with communities to serve the needs of the people of California.  What could be more important than doing this around the issue of local food production?

Click the "Keep me posted" button below for an update when we publish future stories on this topic. Read more on Albany Patch about the Gill Tract occupation.

lupe miller May 02, 2012 at 03:25 AM
I am an Albany resident who a) is intrigued by the message of the farm action; though I'm not among them and have only driven past; and b) does not feel the relentless hostility of so many others using the Patch on this issue, as history teaches important change sometimes requires bold actions outside the law (Rosa Parks for one); c) has no desire for the corn researchers to lose their grant or commute to Davis (understanding their time using this site is already marked as limited by UC, per site planning); d) would love a research-based best-practices urban family-friendly farm at the site; wishes this had or can develop through the required planning process, so it's fair/healthy/intrinsic to the community; d) hopes UC capital projects would take this seriously; even if it's not a money-maker; e) doesn't mind Whole Foods next door; could be worse; f) prays the farm folks have a zero tolerance for drugs; g) wishes some of the chest-puffing anti-farm know-it-all's here would stop acting like they are the one & only voice of Albany. It's not this simple; h) hopes, somehow, that positive and legal collaborations will come from this, with no one getting hurt; and h) doubts this......
Michael Barnes May 02, 2012 at 03:38 AM
Lupe, I'm not sure whether you would classify me as a "chest-puffing anti-farm know-it-all", but I'd rather be that than a pro-farm illegal trespasser. I'd like to get back to the "required planning process" you mention. I'm not sure how Albany residents feel about a farm, but I'd support it if a majority of my fellow citizens and the planning process did. But please note, there was nothing democratic or respectful about what the occupiers did. I am not pro- or anti- farm per se. That misses the point. I am in favor of due process and democracy, however.
Art Simon May 02, 2012 at 04:18 AM
Hi Michael, The "illegal trespass" issue really seems to be the dividing line the separates people on this issue, and it's the one fact that I agree with. The farmers are illegally trespassing on UC land, and that seems to me the most mentioned idea in the comments section on anything to do with Occupy the Farm. While UC land is private property, UC is also a public institution that bears a burden of public service. Some objections seem to be of the "slippery slope" type, that allowing the farmers to sit in illegally on UC land will encourage them to steal cars and break into peoples homes. I think if we look at the history of protests, we will see lots of mistakes, but I don't see that people who participate in civil disobedience against institutions are emboldened to then start victimizing individuals and stealing their personal property. While this action was inspired by the Occupy movement, there's a huge difference between what is happening in Albany and what happened in Oakland tonight. The other objections I've heard are conjecture. That the action will encourage homeless encampments, is damaging the land, was the product of one researcher to further his own aims, and that it will hurt the livelihoods of other researchers that are planning to start planting corn in June. I encourage you in the spirit of empiricism to measure those assertions. They could well be true, but it's also possible that they aren't.
Garden Dan May 02, 2012 at 04:52 AM
Michael if you'v had enough of the occupiers you want to contact: Ron Coley, Associate Vice Chancellor 510-643-1430, rcoley@berkeley.edu John Wilton, Vice Chancellor, 510-642-3100, vcaf@berkeley.edu
Lisa Schneider May 02, 2012 at 04:55 AM
The Gill Tract occupation seems to meet the standard for criminal (vs. civil) trespassing under the California penal code. If that's right, our governmental bodies have the authority to act against it-- ideally with land owner UC's participation, but even without. The City of Albany has to pick its time and battles, but I suggest the time is soon, before these idealistic but entitled occupiers become so entrenched that cognitive dissonance won't let them admit they goofed. As for the battle (or more gently, the "issue"), could the City please back up its citizens when we advocate for local democratic processes around land use, rule of law (AKA "community consensus"), and basic respect for other people? About Mr. Altieri-- I agree with Mr. Barnes. When you look at who stands to win or lose from the occupation, this reads like a David Lodge novel, only far meaner.
Ross Stapleton-Gray May 02, 2012 at 05:06 AM
Another Lodge fan? My first read of his was "Small World," recommended to me by a professor; she sounded almost conspiratorial in suggesting I'd gotten old enough to read it... perhaps she was imagining herself a Fulvia Morgana to my Persse. And decades later I find myself actually living in the shadow of Euphoria State! Most of his writing (including his literary columns) is delightfully comic, though his "Souls and Bodies" is heart-achingly sad.
Dan Walsh May 02, 2012 at 05:09 AM
I know first-hand that Professor Altieri didn't have have advance knowledge of the occupation. Dan
Michael Barnes May 02, 2012 at 05:17 AM
Art, I'm not sure I follow all this, but I agree the trespass issue, along with damage to property, is what bothers me. The occupiers are not just there, they are changing and damaging the land is ways the lawful owners of the land do not appreciate. But if the spirit of empiricism means we have to accept the situation to see just how badly it turns out, then no, I am not interested, any more than I am interested in handing a sharp knife to an infant to see if anything bad happens. Some experiments are not worth conducting. The obvious solution here is to have the occupiers leave. Best of all would have been if they had never taken over the land in the first place. But that possibility has been lost.
Michael Barnes May 02, 2012 at 05:34 AM
Art, You do touch on another important topic, UC's public service role. I feel that this issue has been badly neglected, because us city folk do not realize how much UC has benefited the state through its Agriculture Extension Service and UCDA-funded research. First, my personal take is here: http://tinyurl.com/chxh9lq This is a short pub from 10 years ago that I produced as part of a series for our DC office. We would give these pubs to staffers of the California delegation during visits to the hill. Although this pub is 10 years old, the topics are still very timely, which just goes to show how advanced UC research was and is. Please check out this website, there is a ton of good info here: http://ucanr.org/ Finally, I'm a big fan of California Agriculture magazine, a peer-reviewed journal about ag that is meant for a more general audience. Best of all, you can still get a free sub to the paper version. I've known the editors for years: http://californiaagriculture.ucanr.org/ Check out the topics on the upper left. Very relevant to our discussions. The impression that UC doesn't care about or understand agriculture is just flat wrong. I really hope people understand that.
Michael Barnes May 02, 2012 at 05:59 AM
Garden Dan, thanks! I'm wondering if a more systematic effort to contact UC officials would be helpful. We are operating in a vacuum, but I do sense there is real concern and that people at Berkeley are working hard to get this resolved. Still, a little nudging might not hurt.
Michael Barnes May 02, 2012 at 06:19 AM
Art, one more comment. You stated, "I don't see that people who participate in civil disobedience against institutions are emboldened to then start victimizing individuals and stealing their personal property." We touched on this before, and I think this misses my point. Here a list to consider: 1) the rapid decline of the Haight into hard drugs in the late 60s, 2) A similar decline in People's Park, 3) Occupations and vandalism of UC Berkeley buildings on the main campus in the last few years, 4) the tree-sitter incident, 5) the Gill Tract occupation. The first four are examples of happenings that started out idealistically but rapidly turned sour as the idealists moved on and were replaced by harder groups of people. I think it is very reasonable to fear that the Gill Tract occupation will follow a similar trajectory. But as I said, I don't see any reason to wait to find out. Ocean View elementary is right there. That's were my son was a student for many years. I'd it was a good experience, I'd like other students to have a similar experience. When I look at what the Gill Tract has become, it seems like an accident waiting to happen.
John Nemeth May 02, 2012 at 06:22 AM
Rosa Parks had rights under the 14th Amendment that were being violated by a discriminatory local ordinance. If I can be convinced that those now on the Gil tract have a reasonable claim to rights to this property under the Constitution, I will be much more sympathetic. Moreover, this is not just a "sit-in" protest, where people passively disrupt an operation to make a point. As Michael Barnes points out, people are actively and significantly modifying this land and establishing their own operation in ways that may or may not conform with environmental regulations. Meanwhile, a cash-strapped UC (which we help to underwrite as citizens and taxpayers) takes on growing liability for whatever could go wrong. Generally, I dig urban farming, but I don't like having my democracy subverted. It's presumptuous, arrogant and bullying. I suppose things are all going to change shortly when the Soccer Collective and Giant Human Chess Piece League move onto the site en masse. Then at least three highly idealistic groups dedicated to radical direct action will be competing to impose their mutually exclusive visions on the same site. It should be interesting.
Michael Barnes May 02, 2012 at 06:30 AM
John, We need a mechanism for getting people organized. Any ideas? A simple email list, facebook site?
Michael Barnes May 02, 2012 at 06:45 AM
I'm a member of People for the ethical treatment of plants (PETOP). I believe that plants should eaten only if they have been certified dead of natural causes. The people occupying the Gill Tract now are obviously planning a mass murder of living plants, and they need to be stopped! Each plant should be loved and stroked several times a day. Just think of the horrid, wretched lives these poor plants are living how on the Gill Tract. We must liberate these plants, take them home our our own gardens, and tend them lovingly. To arms!
Kirsten Schwartz May 02, 2012 at 02:08 PM
Inappropriate Post Coming (perhaps): I have been assured by someone who was there that Lodge was Sparrow (in Trading Places), that many things in Trading Places happened, and that the incident of the untenured faculty person in the English Department really did blow his career by winning at the game "Humiliation." I'm not sure how much the Altieri-take-over is Lodgian, but I like the thought.
Kirsten Schwartz May 02, 2012 at 02:14 PM
Michael, good idea. You or Amy can lead the way. You've been in the comments from early on and have a good perspective and knowledge of history, as well as a clear, focused writing style. Same with Amy. And although others may think you have personally attacked them, I've seen that the posts from both of you have attacked their ideas and arguments, not the arguers (which I have probably done myself). In fact, Michael, you need to write an op-ed piece yourself for the Patch, or a Letter to the Editor. Wish you would. Also, if you fail and parcelling and parallel Occupations are going to happen on that Tract, I want some of the space for a small-dog off-leash run. Point Isabel has a rep of dangerous dogs with foolish owners (that I've experienced once myself), and The Bulb is okay but illegal, with also lots of big dogs. How about a corner for little dogs and puppies? No dog over 20 pounds.
Amy Marsh May 02, 2012 at 07:31 PM
Yes, my mutually exclusive vision for the Gill Tract is that all Albany citizens and wannabe Albany citizens (aka "occupiers") will be required to don Chess Vegetable costumes and hats at the Winter Solstice to elect a "Speaker of Misrule." The Speaker will be allowed to "occupy" the premises and issue press releases for exactly 24 hours before handing over the ritual laptop. This ritual is designed to propitiate the mightly Lords of Development, as we beseech them to preserve our farmland for yet another year. It will also send the Demons of College Department Infighting back to their primordial cubicles in the Underworld - but only if we offer the appropriate sacrifices of fava and mustard greens. I am channeling all this, by the way, as Jane Austen's medium. She's kind of annoyed that Johnathan Swift and Charles Dickens have so far had all the fun... I do hope the Soccer and Redwood People will feel free to join in - but only if they agree with me on all points, absolutely, and do my bidding. (Er--- that's Jane speaking, not me...)
Carissa Sun May 02, 2012 at 07:48 PM
Oh man, Amy, you should have indicated at the beginning of your comment that this is NSFW. My coworkers are giving me funny looks. There is no way I could top this, but I do want to make MY voice heard here, because I'm ME and MY demands have been ignored for way too long: It is detrimental to our community that we have an outdoor/drive-in movie theater in our town as the arts are not getting enough attention, IMHO. The Gill Tract is perfect for this - easily accessible by car (although I believe we should only allow in Priuses and other hybrid or electric cars. I guess Biodiesel counts, too (wouldn't want to be accused of being hostile by omission, now). Also, the movie theater needs to include a full (and I mean FULL and well-stocked) bar. So please add the Citizens of Enebriated Cinema to your Circle. You can fight demons a whole lot better with a glass of Pinoir in you hand, believe me.
Amy Marsh May 03, 2012 at 12:17 AM
Got it Carissa - but we just won't be allowing the Speaker of Misrule to indulge. Zat okay?
KJ May 03, 2012 at 12:21 AM
Seriously, we should march into the tract and set up our soccer pitch and giant chess board. Let's organize. I'm sick of waiting for the UCB police to do what needs to be done.
Emilie Raguso May 03, 2012 at 12:27 AM
This seems like the perfect time for Ross to bring up his mini-golf idea...
Art Simon May 03, 2012 at 04:24 AM
Hi Michael, When you say things like "But if the spirit of empiricism means we have to accept the situation to see just how badly it turns out, then no, I am not interested, any more than I am interested in handing a sharp knife to an infant to see if anything bad happens." I'm troubled, because you are presupposing that this will turn out badly. Yes, you are right. UC and the USDA have done great research, but UC does plan to hand the Gill tract over to the community in the future. I think the farmers are demonstrating what that future could look like. In presupposing a poor outcome, it reminds me of certain people who have already decided that cell phones are harmful, and aren't interested in actually checking to see if that's true, or if it's true, how to best mitigate the dangers. That's not to say that it couldn't turn out badly. Hopefully, we have all learned from people's park. I don't agree with Caryl O'Keefe, but I can respect her opinion that "No justification offered to date is strong enough to warrant this law-breaking." There should be a strong justification for an illegal occupation. Look, I'm not ready to take a position on this, but I'm hoping it turns out well. A best case scenario would be that Damon could do his research, the farmers leave voluntarily after demonstrating what an urban farm could be, and then Albany resumes the process of negotiating with UC over the future of the Gill tract.
Ellen Hershey May 03, 2012 at 04:42 AM
I'm a history buff, myself. The Gill Tract will be ideal for re-enacting the Battle of Gettysburg in full costume with period weapons. Expect all crops to be destroyed by soldiers foraging for food. Auditions for General Robert E. Lee role to be announced soon--bring your own horse, must be white.
Ross Stapleton-Gray May 03, 2012 at 04:46 AM
"...the farmers leave voluntarily after demonstrating what an urban farm could be..." Not to harsh on empiricism, but I don't think you can get there from here. It's akin to demonstrating that because Habitat for Humanity can put up a house in a day, we can solve the problem of a homeless population encamped at the Bulb. There's no question that crops can be grown at the Gill Tract. A thousand other questions, such as how such a farm would cover the costs of operations, ensure an availability of farmers, cope with others' competing desires (I'm liking this giant chessboard idea more and more, as well as restoring the coastal redwoods... but practically, what *would* Occupying farmers do when a new generation of squatters comes in, perhaps demanding that an acre of pot would stick it to The Man's antedeluvian drug policies?), remain as yet unasked and unanswered.
Michael Barnes May 03, 2012 at 05:36 AM
Art, the correct analogy to the cell phone example is the practice of the precautionary principle. Public health folks suggest that since the data on the health risks of cell phones is not yet conclusive, it is best to take simple precautions such as using a holster, texting when possible, using speaker mode, etc. (BTW cell base stations are a different and more complicated matter). I'm simple applying the precautionary principle to the Gill Tract occupation. That certainly seems reasonable to me. Another topic that I have been vocal about is the benefits of our new swimming pool in Albany. I worked very hard on that. I have pointed out that as a justification that drowning is still a leading cause of accidental death for children. CDC statistics show that swim lessons are effective in preventing drowning. Teaching kids to swim is another application of the precautionary principle, but in a more general sense. I'm really very consistent about this.
Michael Barnes May 03, 2012 at 05:47 AM
Art, you say this: "A best case scenario would be that Damon could do his research, the farmers leave voluntarily after demonstrating what an urban farm could be, and then Albany resumes the process of negotiating with UC over the future of the Gill tract." If the occupiers had never show up at all, Damon could have continued his research, and Albany could have continued negotiating with UC. It's not clear in the aftermath of the occupation that the stakeholders will feel more kindy towards urban gardening than before. I expect not. So I suspect the occupation did more harm than good, even for the causes they claim to support. The pathway to hell is paved with good intentions. Oh, I forget one thing. Someone will have to clean up their junk. I'm not expecting they will do a job themselves. So either community volunteers or UC will have to clean up after them. We could have been spared that as well had the occupiers never showed up.
Barbara May 03, 2012 at 06:04 AM
There was a meeting at the community center tonight. A flyer was distributed to Albany residents today. It was a round table setting, everyone that wanted to speak was given a chance, there was no fighting, no bashing or bullying going on. It was handled well.
Michael Barnes May 03, 2012 at 06:05 AM
Art, I should give you a bit more background. When I was on the Albany school board, four kids died. Two suicides, one knifing at a party (killer was eventually found) and one former student killed in a car jacking. That one is still unsolved. We almost lost two more to acute alcohol poisoning before a high school dance. The board responded. We made breathalyzers mandatory before dances. We added a health curriculum for the older students (it's been hard to keep it going due to budget cuts). Having kids die in Albany is not an abstract concept. You never forget.
Ross Stapleton-Gray May 03, 2012 at 06:07 AM
"Changing Places"... "Trading Places" was the Eddie Murphy/Dan Aykroyd/Jamie Lee Curtis flick. And Swallow, not Sparrow; Philip Swallow was the professor... Jack Sparrow was from that other thing. Every decoding's another encoding...
Barbara May 03, 2012 at 06:28 AM
P.S. I am a long time Albany resident. I live very close to this, less than a block. I don't like parts of all of this from both sides. But I did learn a lot of information about this property and how UC has handled things with Albany regarding the entire property not just the occupy space. I encourage everyone interested to go to the city council meeting on Monday night May 7th to bring up concerns during the open agenda. It's not a cut and dry deal and basically Albany has its hands tied in many respects in regards to what deals they get to make with the UC. For what it's worth, I did mention all the banners and signs that have been posted on the fencing. My main concerns were that, this intersection a four way left turn signal was just installed this past summer for safety reasons. I have heard lots of cars slamming on their brakes because traffic has been moving a bit slower at times due to looky loos. My other concern is that it just doesn't look nice as this is one of our main gateways into our city. I was told at this meeting, thank you for bringing it up and that the signs will be coming down. I understood this was going to happen immediately. I hope that we can act in a civil manner and not have violence occur. I would hate to see what goes on in Oakland and SF happen here. Like I said before, I don't like parts of this from both sides.

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