Albany Bulb & the Gill Tract – Saving, Creating and Spreading Paradise by Matthew McHale

Saving, Creating and Spreading Paradise
There are two places in Albany, California where paradise is struggling to survive. Both have been neglected and desecrated—casualties of a society bent on unsustainable ways of living with the planet, through unrestrained consumption and endless industrial growth. And yet, despite the destruction, there is something beautiful which is holding on in these places.
Life constantly pushes back against development, arising from degraded soil and cracks in the asphalt, doing its best to reclaim the land and sustain life.
But these places did not survive on their own. People who care deeply about them have been fighting for the land for years. They have been fighting to preserve the paradise that is still there, to prevent even more of it from being lost. They have been helping to restore some of the paradise that has already been lost, with a lot of assistance from nature. And, most importantly, they are working to transform the land into something new, something radical.
These pieces of land hold the potential to be a model and an inspiration for saving and (re)creating paradise around the world, at a time when economic inequality and ecological destruction threaten all of humanity and most life on this planet.

Paradises Under Threat: The Gill Tract and The Albany Bulb
Despite the similarities between these pieces of land and their proximity to one another—they are only a mile apart—these are two very different places, with distinct histories, struggles and potentials.
The Gill Tract is 104 acres of historic agricultural land, acquired by UC Berkeley in the 1930s. Since then, all but 15 acres have been developed. While the north half of the remaining land has been continuously used for agriculture, WWII‐era barracks (which later became university housing) were built on the south half. Although the land on the south half was marred by the barracks, they have since been removed, and the land has been left to run wild, and became covered with wild oat, thistles, gopher holes and wild turkeys nests. Although much of the soil has been compacted, because the soil is not toxic, it holds the potential to be rejoined with the north side and used for agriculture again. But the UC has plans to the pave over the south side of the Tract and replace it with a private commercial development.
Moreover, development of the north side appears likely in the near future.
Over the past 15 years numerous groups have been fighting to save this land from development, and to see it preserved as a productive community farm in perpetuity. Most recently this fight has been taken up by the group Occupy the Farm, which I am a part of. With the participation of several hundred farmers, UC students and community members, we have taken direct action to put the land back into use as a farm—clearing the weeds, tilling and improving the soil and planting thousands of seedlings. But the UC, fearing that its development plans were under threat, responded with force, raiding the camp, arresting the farmers and plowing over the crops.
By contrast, 100 years ago, the Albany Bulb was not land at all. A peninsula jutting out into the San Francisco Bay, the Bulb is the result of filling in what used to be wetlands and shallow parts of the Bay with garbage and debris. For decades it was used as a landfill and place to dump construction debris, primarily concrete and rebar, which still litters the site.

Starting in the 1960s, Save the Bay and other environmental groups fought to halt the dumping, ultimately succeeding in the mid‐80s following a series of lawsuits. Like the other Bay Area peninsulas created by dumping (the Berkeley Marina, Point Emery, Point Isabel) vegetation and wildlife quickly established itself on the former dumping site. Taking root in dumped earth and layers of clay used to cover the trash, the 31 acres are now covered with trees, thick shrubs and tall grasses, most of which are non‐native such as palms, broom, fennel, roses, apple trees and Himalayan blackberries. Following after the vegetation, songbirds, crabs, rabbits, lizards, snakes, and hawks have taken up residence in the now flourishing ecosystem. But the wildlife inhabitants are perhaps less noteworthy than the humans who have made the Bulb their home. Starting in 1993 a group of squatters, mostly young punkers and The Albany Bulb seen from the West. If dumping had not been stopped, the lagoon at the bottom would have eventually been filled with debris. Crabs skitter across the rocks as waves crash. urban deep ecology anarchists, set up a tent city. Over the years the settlement slowly grew into a community with elaborate and oftenartistic camps nestled amidst the greenery and the rubble.
Artists, some of whom are residents, have also taken the debris from the landfill— the detritus of industrial growth and development—and turned it into works of art. The exposed concrete, which litters the landscape, has been spray‐painted by graffiti artists, who do guerilla installations and turn the large slabs into murals. Perhaps most striking of all are the giant sculptures of metal, stone, wood, and anything else pulled from the landfill, which ring the north coast of the Bulb. Although many of the Bulbs’ residents struggle with mental health and addiction, they have created a vibrant community of squatters and radical artists. Robert “Rabbit” Barringer, a resident of the Bulb, and narrator of the 2003 documentary Bum’s Paradise, which chronicles the lives of those living on the Bulb, explains that the residents live there because they “are allowed to live free of public scorn and scrutiny and the daily harassment of police.” Yet they have not been left entirely alone; in 1999, the city evicted the squatters, although many quietly came back. Despite several more attempts at eviction, a strong squatting community remains on the land, with more people taking up residence during the economic downturn. Over the past several years, the City has been trying to get the Bulb turned into a Regional Park, which would likely mean the destruction of most of the art, and the permanent eviction of the residents. This May the Albany City Council pushed this plan forward by voting to enforce the City’s no‐camping ordinance starting in October, while opening up conversations with the East Bay Regional Park District officials.  Occupy the Farm envisions a future in which East Bay communities make use of all available land – occupying it when necessary – to create sustainable, democratic alternatives that meet local needs in the face of economic and environmental crisis, emphasizing much needed research into sustainable urban agriculture, open access, and participation by the larger East Bay community. Although we have larger goals than saving the Gill Tract, we recognize the significance of this historical agricultural land. As one of the last large plots of fertile agricultural soil left in the East Bay, the Gill Tract holds great potential for shifting our communities towards self‐sufficiency through urban agriculture and a re‐localized food system. The Gill Tract can be a source local, sustainable, organic food and serve as an educational resource for community members and for UC urban agricultural research. Perhaps most importantly, establishing a farm on the Gill Tract could serve as an model and inspiration turning the tide away from endless development in urban (and suburban and exurban) areas, by reclaiming a piece of the land, and put it back into use as a source of life‐sustaining food production. Because we face strong resistance from the UC administration, we have constantly had to adapt our tactics. After having the crops plowed under, we realized we couldn’t simply keep planting more seedlings, otherwise they would just be destroyed. So when we went on to farm again, rather than just planting in the same place, we cleared more of the field and planted seeds. So when the tractor came back, as predicted, it did the work of the farmers, tilling the soil and breaking it up where it had been compacted. Meanwhile the seeds were left in the ground, waiting to spring forth when the rains come. And where the tractor had already passed, rather than working hard to level the land, we shaped mounds and rows between the furrows (or ruts) created by the tractor’s wheels. Ultimately we settled on a plan to do a research project on the soil, centered around improving the quality of the soil, and restoring it to the rich topsoil it once was. Such research is vital, because if urban agriculture is to spread throughout cities on a large enough scale to be meaningful, it will require reclaiming and growing food land which has been neglected, polluted and degraded. And research is in that area is currently lacking. It also has the added advantage of being research the university cannot disrupt, as the tractor tilling the soil would just improve its quality.
What is so exciting to me about the actions of Occupy the Farm when compared to so many other protests, is that it is a protest by virtue of being an act of creation—not only creating new life through planting, but helping to model a new way of life which embodies my spiritual and social justice values: people and the planet over profit; community over consumerism; access to healthy fresh food for anyone who needs it, not just those who can afford it.
As millions of individuals across the country have become more concerned about where their food comes from and how our food systems impact the planet, they have turned away from industrial agriculture towards farmers markets, and started planting food in their yards or joined community gardens. Occupy the Farm represents a next step: reclaiming land for the commons, where anyone is welcome to participate in growing and harvesting food, and shifting large scale food production back into the urban areas, where most people live. We recognize there is a need to grow a lot more food in the urban centers and give people direct control over their food, as transportation becomes increasingly unsustainable and climate change threatens the global food system.
As a testament to this vision, this action has inspired numerous individuals to plant gardens or take over pieces of land in their own community. It also garnered widespread media coverage on TV, radio, in print and on the web, which included being picked up by national publications like the Nation and the environmental news website Grist. It has also been part of several documentaries and will soon be the subject of a feature length documentary. On some level, the UC administration realizes the beauty and power of this vision. Prior to the occupation, the land had sat unused for years, and there was no immediate plan for developing the land (as the Albany City Council had not yet approved the proposal). Thus it seems then that the only reason the UC has for plowing the farm, is because they recognize that if a farm were to actually become established on the Gill Tract, more residents would realize what a unique and amazing resource it could be as a farm, further undermining the UC’s plans to pave over the land and turn it into another cookie‐cuter development. But more than just its vision for sustainable urban agriculture, a key aspect of Occupy the Farm is its organizing model. As a community‐focused group, there is a lot of emphasis on healthy community and group dynamics. It follows the consensus model for decision‐making, where the group reaches consensus on decisions. We recognize that in order for our actions to be effective in bringing about a just sustainable future, any space that we create needs to make space for diverse identities and opinions. And it also has to operate as a community filled with love and support. And indeed the energy present, when everyone is on the land, working side by side, is some of the best energy I have been around. There is a palpable sense of connection—with each other, with the plants, with the land, and all of creation—which can only be described as a little piece of paradise.
What makes the Albany Bulb so special is the organic way it has grown up amidst the waste of society. Bay Area writer Jill Posener writes:
the place has become a jewel ‐ simply by being ignored by the authorities. For years, it was allowed essentially to self regulate, plants grew without being tended, animals and birds arrived, reptiles and rodents emerged, rose bushes bloomed hidden between concrete slabs dumped 40 years ago, artists came and left a treasure trove of outsider art, the homeless moved in for over 10 years.…
Everything that grew and breathed there came because it could, because it bubbled organically into a cauldron of life and eruptions of leaves and berries and trees.
That organic and unbridled feeling is what really sets the space apart. That is what brings the hundreds of people every day who come with their dogs and walk the trails—which have been leveled and maintained by the  residents—and come to see the unique artwork and the natural beauty. But that same organic, or anarchic, creativity—the kind of life which does not want to be tamed—is a threat to the western mindset of dominance and control. As Posener laments the plans to transform the Bulb, “And now, they have started the process of destroying that imagination, to replace it with something that can be controlled, contained and coerced into compliance with a ‘park plan.’”
What of the two‐story concrete castle, complete with parapet and spiral staircase, built at night by Mad Mark, as he rambled about spaceships and mysterious gasses affecting the minds of his neighbors? Would it disappear along with the other art, because it is deemed unsuitable for a regional park? And what about the residents of the Bulb who have made this place their home for close to 20 years? Those who have planted and tended fruit trees; who have removed most of the hazards, like rebar, from the surface; who have established the Albany Landfill Library, which is filled with hundreds of books; who have participated in shoreline cleanups and helped crews rescue oiled birds during the Cosco Busan Oil Spill; and who have built homes from the discards of society.
American Society has demonstrated, in so many way, that they don’t want “the homeless” living in their cities, sleeping on park benches and in the doorways of businesses. Now that some of them have found a place of their own, with virtually no crime or civil disruption, coexisting peacefully with the rest of the community, we want to take that piece of paradise away. Where else should they go instead? As Rabbit says in Bum’s Paradise, “This Landfill stands as a brooding monument to obsolescence. What could be a more appropriate refuge for America’s unused people? Here, they can be hidden away from a society which regards them as a nuisance and an eyesore.”
I think the spirit of the Bulb is perhaps best represented in the statue “Goddess,” which greets people as they crest the hill from the south. Made of scraps of salvaged metal and wood, the Goddess stands with its arms outstretched as if to welcome or embrace anyone who comes to the Bulb. As it exists now, the Bulb has that feeling of openness and welcome, inviting people onto the land, regardless of who they are, to interact with it in all of its beauty and brokenness.
Or perhaps, with its arms stretched out and its face tilted up towards the sun, in a position with resembles the Orant, the Goddess is giving the blessing of creation. A powerful testament on land where life has taken root and flourished amid waste and ruin. “Goddess,” the most prominent statue on the Bulb, greets people with outstretched arms. Yet those who are opposed to the squatters on the Bulb, cannot see the beauty inherent in the space. To them it must be changed simply because it undermines the dominant power structure. As a writer on Bay Waters, an anarchist news blog for poor and working people, explains:
“The Bulb if anything is a clear violation of the logic and laws of class society: people live without rent, create without permission of government authority, and exist together and with the earth on their own free will. In a society where such ways of existence are always criminalized and seen as threatening by those in power, this is exactly why the Albany Bulb is important and should be defended.” That is what is really at stake at the Bulb, it’s not concerns about the homeless people living on the land per se, because they have truly created a sort of paradise on the Bulb. Their presence is not harming anyone, but their autonomy is a direct challenge to the dominant paradigm. But considering what they have created, out of destruction wreaked by the powers that be, one can’t but hope that their vision is the one that will win out.
Visions for the Future
Paradise truly exists on these two pieces of land. Sometimes it is hard to see, because it is easily overlooked amidst the destruction and oppression that surrounds it. But paradise isn’t perfect; it isn’t located in some inaccessible Garden of Eden or promised afterlife, it’s right here on this planet, all around us. Paradise exists alongside the brokenness of our world. Paradise is the new life and new possibilities which spring eternal.
These spaces, where paradise arises from brokenness, are some of the most important we have. Because we are living in a world that is broken; a world that has been thrown completely out of balance, with climate change, resource depletion, gross economic inequality, and loss of biodiversity, only some of the huge problems we face. And those problems are only intensifying.
If we are to be able to heal this brokenness, it will require turning the tide against polluting the planet, paving over life, and the discarding of people deemed social refuse. With these realities, let us hope that the vision which has led to saving, creating and spreading paradise on these pieces of land, will continue to provide inspiration and transformation in a world which desperately needs it.

McHale, Matthew
June 1, 2013

Gill Tract project may feed many, Miguel Altieri Op-Ed

By Miguel Altieri | Special to the Daily Cal

Sixteen months after advocates for community urban farming took over the university’s Gill Tract agricultural experiment station on Earth Day, April 22, 2012, community members are back in the land and farming a portion of it — but this time by invitation to members of the community to get involved in a community-based participatory research project. This project is a unique opportunity not only to rebuild trust among the university and the community in the aftermath of the land occupation but also to break the linear mold of conventional research by creating bridges between scientists and communities through the use of shared knowledge and valuable experiences in urban agriculture.

Forty community farmers from a variety of groups, including Transition Albany and Berkeley, Merritt College, Albany Farm Alliance, Albany Community Garden, Albany Children’s Center and Occupy the Farm gathered at the Gill Tract on Aug. 10 to begin work on a participatory research project carried out with and by local people under my guidance and my team of graduate students. Participants will have the opportunity to learn about agroecological horticulture, but the project entails a fun challenge: 10 teams of four participants each — assigned a plot of 15 rows, 6 meters long — have designed their own crop arrangements, deciding which plants to grow and testing various plant associations, mulching techniques and organic fertilization methods. Throughout the season, participants will assess pest and disease incidence and soil quality conditions to observe the effects of their crop management plans on the productivity and health of their crops. As plants mature, edible biomass and yields will be measured to estimate how much food will be produced in each plot. The groups will be able to visit each other groups’ plots, observing which crop mixtures or agroecological techniques work best and thus learning from others.

A threshold to surpass by all groups is five kilograms of edible biomass per square meter per year, which corresponds to one-third of what an average urban farmer produces in Cuba, a country with 50,000 hectares of urban agriculture producing about 30 percent of the vegetables consumed in the major cities of the island. Reaching such yields would make a huge difference in solving food security problems in low-income neighborhoods of the East Bay if the lessons from our project can be extended via urban farmer to urban-farmer networks. A report released in 2009 identified 1,200 acres of vacant and underutilized public land in Oakland, that could potentially be used for food production. If only half of this land (600 acres or 300 hectares) were cultivated using intensive ecological farming methods that we are testing at Gill Tract, we estimate that these “commons” could contribute about 15,000 tons of vegetables to the local food system. Assuming that each person consumes 100 kilograms of vegetables per year, that is enough vegetables for 150,000 people per year.

One way to promote community outreach will be to hold a field day open to the public so that all interested people can visit the project and perhaps become interested in scaling up ecological urban farming in their communities. Faculty members, students from my courses — ESPM 118, Agroecology, and ESPM 117, Urban Agriculture — and students from other courses will be able to visit the plots and see what the community is doing so that local knowledge and perspectives are not only acknowledged but may also form the basis for further participatory research and planning involving more researchers and new community members. Such activities are consistent with the university’s education and public mission as a land-grant institution with a cooperative extension function. The dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, Keith Gilles, acknowledges this and has facilitated our access to the Gill Tract.

I think this community-based participatory research project represents a golden opportunity for all within the university, including the newly created Berkeley Sustainable Food Systems Institute as well as nonprofit organizations working on food justice and urban agriculture, and community members to jointly revisit the previous ideas for creating a center for sustainable urban farming at the Gill Tract. In an era of climate change, energy crisis and food insecurity, creating local food systems cannot be more strategic.

Miguel Altieri is a UC Berkeley professor of agroecology.

UC Berkeley professor and community members begin research at Gill Tract

By Elise Lagana-Aliotti | Staff, Daily Cal

After months of conflict regarding the usage of the Gill Tract, community members and UC Berkeley professor Miguel Altieri came together Saturday to begin a community participatory research project testing agroecological methods.

In collaboration with several community groups, including Occupy the Farm, Altieri and some of his students will lead a research project designed to look into how to maximize the amount of vegetation grown on a small plot of land.

According to UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof, Altieri’s project is not taking place on the area of campus-owned land that had been slated for development but on the area that is traditionally used for research.

Occupy the Farm members have previously planted crops and occupied the space, protesting the campus’s decision to develop the land, most recently this past May.

However, in a press release, Occupy the Farm member Lesley Haddock said that the organization was excited to be working with the university on this project.

“Occupy the Farm is excited about the opportunity this presents for the University to collaborate with members of the broader community, and to promote inclusive participatory research models for food production and agroecology,” Haddock said in the release.

For the project, 40 community participants are separated into groups of four people responsible for managing a small plot of land on which they plant different combinations of crops. The groups will spend time visiting the other plots, comparing their strategies and sharing their experiences with each other.

Participants from the community will only have access to the Gill Tract when Altieri or his students are there.

Altieri said he developed the project because he supports the causes of community members and their objective of preserving the land. In October, Altieri plans to invite community members, students and UC administrators to attend a field day at the Gill Tract.

“This activity can benefit the conversation between the community and administration in regard to the Gill Tract,” Altieri said.

J. Keith Gilless, dean of the College of Natural Resources, said that Altieri’s project is within the guidelines for conducting research involving the community.

“We have already begun a community engagement process under the leadership of collaborative extension specialist Christy Getz, and what Miguel is trying to do is in line with our goals,” Gilless said.

The project will continue into November.

Contact Elise Lagana-Aliotti at

Albany: Occupy the Farm returns to the Gill Tract — legally

By Judith Scherr, Contra Costa Times, Correspondent

ALBANY — Occupy the Farm activists grabbed headlines last year — and earlier this year too — when they forced their way onto University of California-owned land here known as the Gill Tract to set up community farmland.

But Occupy the Farm doesn’t have to mean confronting police to take hold of underused land said David Grefrath, an organizer for the group. Grefrath and around 30 other would-be urban farmers, most of them veterans of Occupy the Farm actions, gathered July 13 at Urban Adamah, a one-acre nonprofit farm on San Pablo Avenue in southwest Berkeley, to talk about farming on the Gill Tract — this time, with the university’s blessing.

They will be part of a research project directed by UC Berkeley Professor Miguel Altierri, a staunch supporter of the Occupy the Farm movement.

Seated on straw bales and benches, sheltered from the noonday sun by a large canopy erected near lush rows of kale, squash, tomatoes and more, Tiffany Chung explained the project: Participants will form 10 teams of four people; each team will be given a plot of 15 six-yard rows to plant. Teams decide which crops to plant, what companion crops, if any, to plant in order to increase yield, and whether to keep or remove the bean plants already planted by Altierri’s graduate students. Planting begins in August.

The project’s stated goal is to show which plan creates the most bountiful harvest.

But the project is more than growing food, Chung said, noting, “It will show how collaboration makes better results.”

Grefrath said the project is an extension of Occupy the Farm. “With Occupy the Farm, right now, one of the most necessary things is building communities, resilient communities,” he said.

The community is built as the teams work the land and share strategies. “We feel that the Gill Tract is the perfect place for that to happen,” Grefrath said, adding that he believes the project will demonstrate that the Gill Tract can be opened to community farming. Currently the north side of the Gill Tract is restricted to UC Berkeley’s agricultural researchers and the south side of the tract is slated for development of a grocery store, senior housing and other retail.

“We’ll try to show that (community farming) is the best course for the land — that’s why we fought for it,” Grefrath said. “That’s because we felt that it is actually something worth fighting for.”

Many in the group gathered Saturday had been among those who fought the university to farm on the Gill Tract.

Inspired by the Occupy movement and landless peasant movements of South America, Occupy the Farm activists broke into the northern fenced area of the Gill Tract on April 22, 2012 and farmed for three weeks before University of California police evicted them. In May of this year, the group tried to farm on the southern portion on several successive weekends, but university police plowed under their crops at each planting. Grefrath was among four protesters arrested at the time.

“We will show that the Gill Tract itself is a valuable resource,” he said.

Posted: 07/17/2013 02:10:24 PM PDT

Update on the ‘Occupy the Farm’ | Gill Tract Struggle


All graphics and images courtesy of OTF
Comment by Devon G. Peña, Ph.D. | Las Colonias de San Pablo, CO

I wish to make a brief context statement about urban agriculture and food justice before presenting the Gill Tract update from Ms. Tiffany Tsing on the Occupy the Farm movement in the East Bay Area.

The last time we checked-in on the food justice campaign at the Gill Tract in Albany, California, the squatter-farmers had been evicted. I drove by in June 2012 with some colleagues and the place was by then in the second week of a University lockdown with 2-3 UC police stationed to “guard” the land. The University of California was apparently pursuing a deal with Whole Foods to build a new store on the tract. WF backed-out but Sprouts Farmers Market, a multi-state chain with operations here in Colorado (Grand Junction), is now actively pursuing a deal on the plot.

Why is this Important? We Need Many Gill Tracts. In 1998-99, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reported 800 million persons were involved in urban agriculture across the world. The figure now hovers at about 1.5 billion per FAO estimates. The latest count for the US is contested but I believe there are approximately 40-50 million people producing food in the cities and peri-urban areas with more than 5000 registered community gardens, family farms, community farms, and corporate farms. The Urban Farming website has a useful interactive map for the USA and many other countries. Increasingly, urban agriculture (UA) is helping to feed a hungry planet of displaced home-seekers. We need many more Gill Tracts for UA, not less.

Undercounting the number of farmers and farms by the surveyors of UA has long been evident and this includes the USDA, which has a longstanding notoriously inaccurate count of native and traditional smallholder farmers in general. This is largely unintentional and results from problematic technocratic definitions and the fact that smallholder farmers and plot gardeners alike often do not respond to surveys; this seems especially the case with immigrants.

Thus, one of the categories most often overlooked in these counts is that of the person(s) engaged with a huerto familiar or home kitchen garden. Many Mesoamerican and Asian and African immigrant households in the US have these gardens given the space. When no space at home is available then many of these displaced farmers start searching for an alternative and preferably communal space, since for them urban food and herb production is a matter of resisting nutrition genocide and maintaining a healthy lifestyle and diet and that includes the cherished value of conviviality or convide.

When we consider the most diverse and sustainable urban farms or community gardens in the US a growing number are focusing on supporting this search by low-income, Mesoamerican, and immigrant families for a space to start home kitchen gardens and hortalizas (herb patches) in communal spaces. This is the subversive art of autotopography – placemaking is about making space into place. The Zapotecs created ‘Oaxacalifornia’ through this process and many more displaced farmers are attempting to do the same thing across many parts of North America. This is revolutionizing urban agriculture in unexpected ways, remarkable in the midst of entrenched anti-immigrant rightwing hysteria and a state of exception that increases human suffering.

The urban agriculture movement seems the most subversive when it embraces the creative transformation of space into place as organizers and farmers integrate the indigenous agro-ecologies of place and the deeply held and yearned for reservoir of ethnobotanical and agroecological knowledge, belief, and practice that arrives with many Mesoamerican, Asian, and African displaced persons and many other low-income people.

The mutual reliance interests of these constituents of the urban food justice movement often revolve around access to resources for the self-provisioning and barter of fresh crops needed to maintain heritage cuisines and diets. One result of this relationship is a reduction in obesity and many other maladies that come with a forced transition to a more Americanized diet among displaced farmers and smallholders and low-income immigrant and native households.

The struggle by the students, faculty, and wider food justice community of the East Bay Area is the product of one of these intersections of such creative forces. This campaign owes up to the twin principles of (1) respect for the deep place-based agroecology of indigenous peoples and (2) the integration of the ethnobotany and agroecology of the immigrant and low-income communities. It is committed to the goal of community food self-sufficiency.

The movement in Albany counts with the presence and leadership of faculty like Dr. Miguel Altieri, one of the world’s most prominent and respected of all agroecologists. It also counts with the support and participation of Mesoamericans including DREAM Act eligible students. The Gill Tract movement has organic relationships with all autonomous food justice organizations and networks across the Bay Area and well beyond.

The University of California has a moral, political, and educational obligation to invest in helping the students, faculty, and community members transform the Gill Tract into one of the largest urban farms in the US. Converting this rare patch of urban open space to real estate development would be a perverse act and demonstrate the UC system’s insensitive the surrounding disregard for community and its urgent food justice needs and priorities.

It is not like the University is hurting for resources to invest in corn or other crop research. The flow of money (research dollars) from commercial agricultural biotechnology corporations and the federal government and philanthropic endowments is more than very substantial. A $1 million investment to make the Gill Tract into a community- and University-based food justice farm and research center would serve a wider public good and urgent community needs. That would represent less than 1% of the annual expenditures in public-private biotechnology research across the rest of the UC system, if we include Davis.

It is preposterous and immoral for the UC President and system authorities to treat the Gill Tract as just another commercial asset. This land is older than the state. It has deep roots. The Gill Tract is a rare opportunity to work to reconnect people to the land. It is a moral choice and we could make the Gill Tract into a center of service, learning, research, and teaching about how to make our cities more sustainable, resilient, equitable, and self-provisioning. I am re-posting the update by Tiffany Tsing as it appeared in Food First on July 4.



Tiffany Tsang | Berkeley, CA | July 14, 2013

Occupy the Farm (OTF), an assembly of activists from the San Francisco Bay Area, is raising its voice against unsustainable development, reclaiming a piece of land in Albany known as the “Gill Tract” that is slated for commercial development. The Gill Tract, previously dedicated to sustainable agricultural research, has become an important battleground in the struggle for land and food sovereignty in the Bay Area.

The piece of land in question, the southern portion of a 104-acre tract owned by the University of California system, is slated for development by Sprouts Farmers Market, a supermarket chain with over 150 stores in the US. Last year, due to OTF pressure, “natural” and organic foods retailer Whole Foods backed out of a similar deal with the UC. Sprouts is now attempting to make a deal with the UC over that same piece of land. Over nine days in May of this year, occupiers broke ground, establishing an urban farm, and replanted twice when UC police ploughed over the field.

OTF argues that, as a taxpayer-funded land-grant institute, the UC has a responsibility to provide research and services that benefit its community. Under UC’s current plan to sell the land to the Sprouts supermarket chain, OTF sees little value added to the community. But the larger question is: who in the community most needs the land, one of the last pieces of class-1 uncontaminated agricultural land in the urban East Bay. As OTF activist Effie Rawlings put it, OTF does not focus on the legal claim the community has to the land but supports the idea that “land use decisions should not be based on economic reasons, but social and environmental reasons.”

OTF activists argue that urban agriculture can help alleviate the problems of hunger and poverty in the East Bay: 169,000 adults in Alameda County earning at or below 200% the Federal Poverty Line experienced food insecurity in 2012 [1]. Urban agriculture–which produces 15-30% of the global food supply[2]–holds real potential to feed the community: the 1,201 acres of underutilized or vacant lots in Oakland could produce enough fresh produce to satisfy at least 40% of the city of Oakland’s fresh vegetable needs and an additional 337 acres of underutilized land is private land that could be used for urban agriculture [3].
Currently, none of the agriculture projects endorsed by UC planners on the Gill Tract benefit the local community [4]. Just north of where Sprouts is to be developed, the UC is conducting basic maize research on gene silencing [5]–knowledge used in transgenic research and research on agrofuel production [6]. While the UC claims to be alleviating world hunger with these projects, the real benefit is for agribusiness corporations [7].

The Gill Tract struggle is connected to the struggles of small farmers and peasants around the world who have for decades resisted the power of industrial agriculture and land grabbing for the production of industrial food, feed and fuel. OTF is thus part of the global fight for “land sovereignty,” defined as “the right of working peoples to have effective access to, use of, and control over land and the benefits of its use and occupation” [8].

Due to last year’s occupation, the UC transferred a portion of the Gill Tract from UC Capital Projects to the University’s Department of Natural Resources. With renewed pressure from OTF this year, the UC has recently initiated negotiations for a parcel of land adjacent to the site of OTF resistance to be set aside for public use. Miguel Altieri, Professor of Agroecology at UC, is offering his lab’s field on the north side of the Tract to the community for a participatory urban agriculture research project.

Currently, Occupy the Farm is launching a pressure campaign against Sprouts, and building its base by supporting other community actions and holding workshops on food sovereignty. To support OTF’s pressure campaign against Sprouts’ development of the Gill Tract, you can join the pledge to boycott the supermarket chain if plans for development continue. To join the Gill Tract’s participatory urban agriculture project, contact before July 20th or CLICK HERE for details.


1. Chaparro, MP, B Langellier, K Birnback, M Sharp, and G Harrison. Nearly Four Million Californians Are Food Insecure. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 2012.

2. Johnson, Renee, Randy Aussenberg, and Tadlock Cowan. The Role of Local Food Systems in U.S. Farm Policy. Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. Federation of American Scientists, March 12, 2013.

3. McClintock, Nathan, Jenny Cooper, and Snehee Khandeshi. “Assessing the Potential Contribution of Vacant Land to Urban Vegetable Production and Consumption in Oakland, California.” Landscape and Urban Planning 111 (March 2013): 46-58. doi:10.1016/j.landurbplan.2012.12.009.

4. The exception is the land Miguel Altieri, Professor of Agroecology at UC, is offering from his lab’s field to community members this year for a participatory research project in urban agriculture.

5. Lisch, Damon. “Blog: Your Research at the Gill Tract.” Albany Patch, May 17, 2012.–your-research-at-….

6. Lisch came to the UC with a $25 million research grant from the agricultural department of Novartis for this project. The agricultural department of Novartis is now part of Syngenta, a seed and fertilizer company with the third largest market share in the world in 2009. Sarah Hake researches genes in maize to improve switchgrass for efficient biofuel production. The research of these two principal investigators takes up most of the north side of the Gill Tract. (Shand, Hope. “The Big Six: A Profile of Corporate Power in Seeds, Agrochemicals and Biotech.” The Heritage Farm Companion, Summer 2012) Chuck, George S., Christian Tobias, Lan Sun, Florian Kraemer, Chenlin Li, Dean Dibble, Rohit Arora, et al. “Overexpression of the Maize Corngrass1 microRNA Prevents Flowering, Improves Digestibility, and Increases Starch Content of Switchgrass.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 42 (October 18, 2011): 17550-17555. doi:10.1073/pnas.1113971108.

7. “Altieri Op-Ed: Gill Tract Occupation Offers Solution for Key Issues.” Albany Patch. Accessed June 21, 2013.….

8. Borras, Saturnino M., and Jennifer Franco. A “Land Sovereignty” Alternative? Towards a Peoples’ Counter-Enclosure. TNI Agrarian Justice Programme, July 2012.

originally appeared on Environmental and Food Justice blog:

To SF to Liberate the Land!



We are being called to defend the land we grow on.
While 36,000 housing units are left empty in San Francisco, property owners and developers plan to build condominiums and high-end housing structures at the cost of displacing urban farms and gardens.

To keep the land arable, the earth able to breathe, and the people of San Francisco able to grow and eat local, nutrient-rich, organic food in the city, people will walk to a potential development site on June 1st to plant food, build a village, and hold space together.

We can out-grow the old power structures!

There will be a dialogue and discussion about the loss of urban gardens to development in San Francisco at the Free Farm at 1 pm ( This will be followed by a gathering of folks who will take direct action in Jefferson Square Park directly across Gough Street from the Free Farm. We will get ready to move, plant, and hold space at 2pm. Follow us on twitter @LiberateLand or #liberatetheland if you are late!

The Free Farm

The first bands, workshops, and activities have been confirmed for June 1st, a schedule will be out soon at:

Please bring skills to share, food to eat, tools, seedling, starts, instruments, and what you need to build a beautiful village on the earth!

For a printable poster to distribute click here:

E-Mail us at with offers of material and other support :) Thank you!

More at

A Few Words from a David Grefrath, who is currently in jail for farming
by Samara Steele / David Grefrath
Wednesday May 15th, 2013 6:56 PM

On Saturday, May 11th, over a hundred people gathered at the Gill Tract in Albany with the intention of using publicly-owned university land to grow vegetables for a 2nd year in a row. The following Monday, police raided the the farm, forcing everyone to stand on the sidewalk and watch as the cops used a tractor to shred the freshly planted vegetables. Four people were arrested on Monday, including David Grefarth, who works as baker at the Nabolom Bakery in Berkeley. David attempted to put his body between the plow and the plants, but was tackled by police and arrested. As of this posting, David is still being held at Santa Rita Correctional Facilitiy Two weeks ago, David wrote this beautiful essay reflecting on his experience of Occupy the Farm. This is the first time it has been publicly shared. ~Samara


Hearts Face the Sun: Celebrating a full year of Occupy the Farm
by David Grefrath 

“Tell me what I should do
to keep the sun out of your coat,
to find a way to obey the wind
to find the pomegranate on
the other side of the revolution.”

~Nathalie Handal
On April 22nd, 2012, around 200 people gathered under the banner “Free the Land” and stood at the locked east fence of a plot of land in Albany, California named ‘The Gill Tract’. Some in the crowd thought they knew what was going to happen, some were surprised that no cops had been seen yet, but what was to transpire was a shock to everyone.

Gopal Dayaneni stood on a truck and held a tomato plant in his hand. He said that he was going to go onto the land, beyond the locked gate, and that he was going to plant that tomato. The lock was cut and 200 people walked onto the last 7 acres of undeveloped farmland in the East Bay. No sirens, no cops. The activists-turned-farmers began to hand weed and pile stringy Mustard Greens that had gone to seed. Soon roto-tillers & compost would be unloaded and begin to till the Earth; soon over 10,000 plants would be brought to the field to be laid in soil to grow and by the end of the day those 200 human beings would have taken part in what has been called one of the most successful direct-actions of a generation, Occupy the Farm. Their actions were the direct result of over five months of clandestine planning, a decade and a half of public struggle over the fate of the land and several lifetimes’ worth of dreams. Late in the afternoon, Pancho Steirle climbed to the top of a redwood tree near the south fence and fastened a flag at the top of the tree. The flag has a single image on it, one of the planet Earth.

In 1929, Edward Gill sold 104 acres of farm land to the University of California Regents. Between the 1950s and the end of the 1990s, the Gill Tract was a stage for some of the most dynamic agricultural research on the planet. In a time when use of DDT was a mainstay in farming practices, the faculty at UC Berkeley used bugs to eat other bugs and were able to severely diminish the amount of poison that was applied to both food & land, a practice known as ‘Biological Control.’ After 1998 though, Novartis, a multi-national corporation, began funding research, and since that time, research onsite has almost exclusively been ‘gene isolation’ related research, which has almost no applicability other than Genetically Modified Organisms. The UC owns over 150 GMO patents, patents which earned about $155 million in 2011.

Between 1998 & 2012, The UC Regents had courted counter-proposals for use of the land, the two major ones being the Bay-Area Center for Urban Agriculture (BACUA), and Village Creek Farm and Garden. Both were proposals for holistic projects that would combine research and public involvement. Both proposals had significant backing from the community, local NGOs and from researchers at the UC-Berkeley Campus. But after years of vetting and support gathering, they were told that their efforts were unnecessary, and that UC Regents were going to proceed with development plans to turn the last bit of the Gill Tract farmland into to a Whole Foods and for-profit senior living center, with apartments starting at $4,000 a month.

When a woman who had been working through official channels for over a decade to save the Gill Tract found out that we were going to occupy it, she was overwhelmed with tears of joy. On that day in April though, I was just amazed that we got onto the Gill Tract, amazed that we had lasted into the afternoon without police arriving, and as the sun set to the west, with migrating geese circling overhead, we looked at a full acre which over 200 people had worked to weed and till that day; about half of which was already planted with tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, zucchini and patty-pan squash. Food Not Bombs cooked a meal for everyone and we called a general assembly underneath ‘the big-top’. The organizers had a number of contingency plans. These plans ranged from ‘What if the cops block the gate?’ to ‘What if the DA calls out mutual aid, and several hundred riot cops arrive, and rain down tear-gas, concussion grenades and rubber bullets?” In the wake of the kettling at the “Move-in Day” Occupation in Oakland in January 2012, where over 400 people were subject to arrest and police violence, these were not idle concerns. Still many knew the risks, or thought they knew them, and they were there, had signed up for the farm, had signed up to be at constant risk of arrest, risk of detainment, and for some like Pancho, risk of deportation due to lack of official citizenship. That first night, I told everyone I was still working on a plan that said, “If everything goes golden…”

On the third day, the UC response on the radio was that they were to arrive at the Gill Tract that afternoon and begin negotiations. The only negotiations that commenced was that the UC Regents turned off the water to the site. Two aspects they didn’t take into consideration are that the City of Albany’s plant storage site is also at the Gill Tract, and their move to dry out the Farm was also drying out about 150 bare root trees that were due to go to residents of Richmond & Albany as part of a fruit tree planting program. Their move also turned off a fire hydrant at the West end of the site, a move which infuriated the local fire department.

The farm continued thriving after 3 water storage tanks were offered by supporters of the farm, each tank holding 255 gallons. Citizens of Albany and the East Bay volunteered to fill the tanks with water from their own homes. A move by the UC Regents designed to weaken the Farm ended up showing even greater community resiliency, as day after day, truckload after truckload of water was unloaded, and plant after plant was hand-watered by people defying the University’s Police daily warnings of arrests.

In the first week, at our first community forum, Damon Lisch, who conducted research on the Gill Tract, bravely attended and said, ‘if work equals ownership, then I own this land and you all are on top of my work. I can’t tell you how upsetting it is for me to have you here.’ During the first few days, Occupy the Farm didn’t have a mandate from the organizers or those involved as to what we should do, vis a vis researchers. Damon Lisch’s research was deeply upsetting to some members of Occupy the Farm, who saw it as supporting GMO science, which in turn could be seen as a major contributor to the suicides of over 270,000 farmers in India. In India, many farmers are pushed to buy GM cotton seeds, often the only ones available in seed stores, and subsequently get tangled in a downward debt spiral, when the crops inevitably fail. This often ends in the degradation of the soil and farmer suicide. No one thing is a sole cause of this, but the presence of GM seeds has correlated with the tread. In addition, GMO plants have a history of wreaking havoc environmentally, in the form of topsoil erosion, groundwater poisoning and ocean hypoxification. Yet all that is far from the Gill Tract, where the group worked towards consensus and set aside two and a half acres of the west field for Lisch and 3 other researchers, all of whom perform genetic isolation work with corn genes. Additionally, a professor and researcher who was involved with the 1998 BACUA proposal, Miguel Altieri, had farmland for his project set aside. Altieri’s particular research has involved dry farming, a rather miraculous practice where many crops can be grown using only natural rainfall.

So the occupation continued. Each day the Police arrived and read a statement to people planting a row of chard or with a wheelbarrow of compost. Each day Food not Bombs made 3 meals. Each day we held a general assembly to discuss concerns. There were festivals held at the end of the first week and another for Beltaine. As time passed though, tensions grew between the police and protesters. We held to the motto, “Farmland is for Farming” as we practiced dismantling the dying structures around us.

The UC Regents called for a meeting to negotiate. Organizers from Occupy the Farm sent a half dozen people to attend, along with Dan Siegel, the lawyer who had battled the UC during the fight for People’s Park. The regents demanded that the organizers disband the farm; the Farm organizers demanded the Regents preserve the land in perpetuity for agriculture. Two days later, the UC Regents filed a lawsuit against all persons who stated they had attended the meeting as well as 150 “John and Jane Does” for destruction of property, as well as remuneration for the ongoing policing efforts, with an estimated total cost of over a million dollars.

Still the farm persevered. Over the 3 weeks of occupation 80 rows of vegetables were planted, a permaculture Children’s garden, the Ladybug Patch, was started across the street from Ocean View Elementary School, with many of the schoolchildren visiting the garden. A group of farmers who had been kicked off the land by the UC & Novartis in 1998 hosted a ‘Return of the Seeds’, which then restarted a seed-saving garden with the descendants of plants which had last been on the land more than a decade before.

On Monday May 14th though, early in the morning, over 80 riot police from 5 precincts were dispatched to the Gill Tract. Seven people were arrested, and the farm, in effect, went into hibernation. The UC Regents plowed under 40 rows of crops, destroying the Ladybug patch and the seed saving library. However, forty rows of crops, much of the first day’s worth of planting, survived.

Beginning in July 2012, eight harvest events were held, which yielded a total of over one ton of produce. This produce was given away at free farm stands in Albany, Richmond and West Oakland, many areas which have a profound lack of available fresh vegetables. Also in July, the Albany City Council approved the Whole Foods development plans. A group of Albany Residents formed the Albany Farm Alliance and gathered 1400 signatures in an effort to rescind the decision. The next month, in August, the million-dollar lawsuit filed by the UC Regents against the Farm Organizers was dropped. In September, the UC announced that the Northern portion of the Gill Tract was now to be managed by the College of Natural Resources for a period of 10 years, a move which put the Northern portion of the Gill Tract beyond the risk of development. Two days later, a Whole Foods Corporate Spokesperson announced that due to delays, Whole Foods was no longer seeking to build a store at the Gill Tract. Before the occupation, many of the organizers would have thought that either of these outcomes was impossible.

Sighting the Albany City Council’s continued desire to have a development project on the site, Eric Larsen of the Albany Farm Alliance filed a lawsuit on behalf what is widely viewed as a highly deficient EIR, which will be heard in June 2013. As autumn descended in 2012, the radical farmers planted an autumn crop of kale, collards & chard, intercropped with nitrogen fixing fava beans. The UC administration plowed under these crops in November. Even still, many of the plants that never made it to the farm were distributed to community gardens in the Bay Area. Occupy the Farm continues to push for integration of public and private spaces for growing food and for the reconsideration of private property in an era where the commons are being continually turned into private profit. Soon we will likely more need public spaces, orchards, public food forests and communal spaces for planting.

We live in an era where autonomous zones serve as the incubation areas for the world that we all must lift our hands to create. From the endurance of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, to the ingenuity at Gaviotas in Columbia, from spontaneous community building to save the land at La ZAD in France to the beautiful, varied insistence of the Arab Spring, Idle No More, and the Tar-Sands Blockade, we must all begin to share and integrate lessons of DIY resistance and liberation.

We are also in an era of one of the most rapid extinctions of species in the history of the planet. If you are reading this, you are still among the living, and you have a duty to both the ancestors and the unborn to find your gift as a human being, and to use that gift in service of life, life which has surrounded and supported you from the first electric explosion in the womb and which will continue to surround and to support you beyond the time of your last breath. Out on the farm the geese are returning, and the rains continue to soften the soil. We breathe, and each breath fills our heart with gratitude for life. As a movement, the earth our drum, we hold dirt stained hands, turn towards the sun, and begin another season.


* * *
To learn more about Monday’s police raid of Occupy the Farm: Police Raid Occupt the Farm, arrest 4, & physically abuse UC Berkeley student

To view a photo gallery of of Occupy the Farm: Photos from Occupy the Farm

originally appeared on


UC Police Raid Gill Tract Public Farm & Plow Crops

UPDATE 9:30 am UC Tractor moved on to Gill Tract Farm and plowed under the thousands of crops planted. (photos below)

At 5 pm today we will re-converge at the corner of San Pablo and Monroe in Albany to protest the plowing of the crops at the Gill Tract Farm. We didn’t stop the tractor but they can’t stop us!

Follow @occupyfarm for updates

Albany, CA UC police moved in to break up the two-day old Gill Tract Farm in the early morning hours of May 13. Despite a transformation of the vacant lot from abandoned field to blossoming community farm and democratic forum, the UC used police force to evict the peaceful farmers. Before Occupy the Farm will continue to maintain a presence all day, and will be reconvening at 5 pm in order to water and continue caring for the recently transplanted vegetables.

“The University claims to care about ‘community interests and democratic processes,’ but this morning’s response is just another example of their one-sided and poor-faith interactions with the community groups who have been articulating an alternative vision for the Gill Tract over the past fifteen years,” says Jackie Hermes-Fletcher, Albany resident and founding member of the Albany Farm Alliance.

Approximately thirty police officers amassed shortly after 4:30 am, prepared to remove people from the newly planted farm. This show of force came in spite of Occupy the Farm’s public announcement declaring that the farmers would intentionally de-camp on Monday May 13th. Given the neglected quality of the land, it was decided that another day of farmwork and soil remediation was needed to get the farm into productive shape.

“The UC’s use of police intervention was completely unnecessary and unreasonable,” says Occupy the Farm member, Matthew McHale, “especially after we publicly declared we were leaving later today.”

“This is a pathetic waste of public resources, to arrest people who are engaged in a constructive project to demonstrate how public land can be used for the public good,” added Dan Siegel, the lawyer for the group.

Over the course of the weekend, hundreds of students, farmers, families, and interested community members participated in the revitalization of a neglected part of the historic farmland bordering San Pablo Avenue and Monroe Street. Rows of squash, kale, tomato, corn, lettuce, and even flowers replaced 5-foot high weeds, as farmers created a vibrant community space on the site of a proposed parking lot and chain grocery store.

Since Occupy the Farm first planted on the Gill tract in April 2012, the group has organized at least 10 public forums focused on the Gill Tract as an asset to community-driven participatory research. The UC Berkeley administration has consistently failed to attend, despite being invited. As one of the last large plots of fertile agricultural soil left in the East Bay, the Gill Tract holds great potential as an educational resource for community members and for UC urban agricultural research, and for providing local, sustainable, organic food.

Tractor Plowing Crops 2

A UC tractor plows under the thousands of crops planted at the Gill Tract Farm over the weekend

A UC tractor plows over the thousands of crops planted at the Gill Tract Farm over the weekend

Unclean Hands at the Gill Tract? ~East Bay Express reports on Gill Tract relations to GMO Patents

Unclean Hands at the Gill Tract?

UC Berkeley researchers say they have nothing to do with Big Agribusiness, but records show that companies like Monsanto profit from their work.


The battle over the future of Albany’s Gill Tract has tapped into multiple, deep-seated conflicts that perennially dominate Bay Area politics, from land use and development to food ethics. But in one area, the roots of disagreement are potentially very deep: biotechnology and its uses.

The Gill Tract in Albany - STEVE RHODES/FLICKR (CC)

Genetic engineering has been a topic of intense debate since its emergence in the early 1970s when scientists developed methods to cut and paste fragments of DNA, creating genetically modified organisms — GMOs. Some claim that GMOs represent a dangerous leap in the technological manipulation of life. Critics also point out that GMO research products benefit large corporations, producing proprietary crop varieties designed to promote industrialized models of agriculture, at the expense of small farmers and the public. Proponents, meanwhile, contend that genetic engineering is simply a new tool that could, if responsibly applied, enable humanity to better provide for the common good.

The East Bay encapsulates the entire debate like no place else. UC Berkeley and many of its spin-off companies are on the cutting edge of biotech. This university-led academic-industrial combine has arguably done more to promote the genetic engineering of food crops than any other cluster of institutions. Paradoxically, the Bay Area is also an epicenter for GMO opposition. It’s no wonder, then, that the issue has lurked in the background of the recent farm occupation in Albany.

While saying they respect the academic freedom of the current crop of UC researchers who utilize the Gill Tract, and even inviting these researchers to continue their work alongside them, organizers of the farm occupation have expressed concern with the University of California’s wider links to agribusiness corporations. Perhaps due to these criticisms, a few of the researchers who use the Gill Tract in their experiments have fired back. They said their work, and, by association, UC’s research program at the Gill Tract, isn’t connected to the biotech industry’s profit motives, nor the genetic engineering of food crops.

In an interview with Albany Patch shortly after the occupation began, Damon Lisch, a UC researcher who uses the Gill Tract in his studies, characterized his work as having nothing to do with the agenda of corporate agribusiness. “Basic research using corn as a model is different than making GMO corn to improve profits for Monsanto,” he said. In another Albany Patch article, UC researcher Sarah Hake said her research “is not to create new products (such as in genetic engineering),” but rather, “to understand basic processes in plant biology.” Most recently, Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson quoted UC researcher George Chuck, who is a member of Hake’s lab team, as saying that research at the Gill Tract is not funded by large oil and other corporate concerns.

But are the GMO-free claims of UC’s researchers true? Is research at the Gill Tract by UC’s scientists purely a public service, unconnected to corporate profits?

A survey of biotechnology patents that cite the research of these outspoken scientists shows that some of their research has, in fact, resulted in the production of GMO technologies. While UC’s researchers might not be conducting GMO trials at the Tract directly for Big Agribusiness, some of their findings have been heavily cited by private sector researchers who are developing transgenic crops for their corporate employers. In fact, Lisch, the most outspoken researcher opposed to the Gill Tract occupation, is a co-inventor of a patent that is directly applicable to GMO research.

Lisch is a named inventor of one biotechnology patent owned by UC, “Genetic functions required for gene silencing in maize.” The patent claims to solve a problem, known as “transgene silencing,” faced by developers of GMO corn. In addition, the UC Office of Technology Transfer markets the techniques described in Lisch’s patent to biotechnology companies so they can use these methods in their GMO development operations. According to the UC’s Office of Intellectual Property and Industry Research Alliances website, the patent’s “applications” are relevant to the “genetic engineering of corn.” UC’s Office of Technology Transfer says it’s university policy to keep the names of corporations that are licensing a specific technology confidential, so it’s not clear who is using Lisch’s patented research findings to develop GMO corn.

Researcher Chuck’s insistence that his work at the Gill Tract isn’t funded by industry might be technically true, but his research has also been patented and marketed, not by UC, but by a private biotechnology company called DNA Plant Technology Corporation, which was headquartered on San Pablo Avenue in North Oakland during the 1990s, giving researchers physical access to UC’s resources, including the Plant Gene Expression Center in Albany. DNA Plant Technology’s intellectual property holdings were bought by the Bionova Holding Corporation in the mid-1990s. Bionova markets numerous GMO plant varieties, and has “major technology relationships” with Monsanto and UC, according to the company’s website.

The academic research of UC’s Gill Tract scientists also serves as an important building block in private industry’s biotech efforts. A search of the US Patent and Trademark Office’s online database reveals more than a dozen patents or patent applications that cite Hake’s research. One patent that cites Hake’s corn research involves inserting genetic material from another life form from outside the plant kingdom. The owner of the patent is DeKalb Genetics Corporation, a subsidiary of Monsanto. Lisch’s research is also referenced in patents involving the genetic manipulation of food crops by Pioneer Hi-Bred, a subsidiary of DuPont.

A reference to academic research within a patent does not mean the cited researcher necessarily endorses the end product, or intended to facilitate its creation. Furthermore, a few patents citing Lisch and Hake’s research do not involve genetic engineering methods, but instead employ more “traditional” means of plant breeding or modification. Neither Lisch nor Hake responded to requests for comment.

The University of California is a major contributor to the development of genetically engineered food crops, and the Plant Gene Expression Center, which uses the Gill Tract, is a large part of UC’s link to the biotech industry. UC owns more than 150 GMO plant patents, according to the US Patent and Trademark Office. UC policy states that financial proceeds from licensed technologies are shared with the inventors, and that the remainder is plowed back into research at the university or put into the general fund.

According to UC’s most recent annual report, the university earned approximately $182 million on its patented technologies on 2011. A mere 25 UC-owned patents earned the bulk of this — about $155 million. Among these are licenses for four different varieties of strawberries and a mandarin orange. Through a licensing arrangement with UC, one of the strawberries, the Camarosa, was genetically engineered by DNA Plant Technology Corporation to withstand Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. The Camarosa Strawberry patent earned the university $2.36 million last year.

Many other UC patents are routinely licensed by biotech companies to develop GMO crops, like the Endless Summer Tomato, another product of DNA Plant Technology. Such deals are lucrative for UC. The university had 627 active plant licensing contracts with industry at the end of last year. More than a few of these were developed from research conducted at the Plant Gene Expression Center. Hake is the center’s director.

Monsanto and UC have at least twenty agreements “that include licensing, sharing materials for research, sponsoring research, and utilizing their specialized, technical services,” according to Kelly Clauss, a Monsanto spokeswoman. “We’ve had a long-standing relationship with the University of California, as well as many other land-grant universities across the country, for decades,” Clauss added. “As a company rooted in science and research, we are proud to work with universities and support agricultural research through these types of collaborative programs.”

Organizers of Occupy the Farm contacted for this article said they support academic freedom, and were wary of jumping into any debates about the nature of research that has been conducted at the Gill Tract. After planting their crops in late April, Occupy the Farm organizers posted several open letters to all the researchers inviting them to continue their projects alongside the working farm.

~~First Appeared in the East Bay Express