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Occupy the Farm: Democracy for Land Grant Universities?

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"Here, we are learning democracy through farming... by taking back a public good that our public university wants to privatize," said a volunteer at the information booth for "Occupy the Farm," the current protest at the University of California's five-acre Gill Tract research station.

When 200 urban farmers, students and community members moved on to the Gill Tract on Earth Day, their goal was to protect one of the few remaining class 1 agricultural lands in San Francisco Bay's former "fertile crescent." Whatever the original intent, their action -- like previous occupy actions -- has further opened the national debate on resources, democracy and corporate power. This time it is about food, land and urban agriculture.

The occupiers demand UC Berkeley halt plans for further sale and private development of what was once the site of its renowned International Center for Biological Control. Instead, they propose an urban farm center to serve the research, training and development needs of the growing urban farm population in the San Francisco Bay Area's underserved communities. To demonstrate their point, they cleared the farm's weeds by hand and planted over two acres of vegetables. They set up an encampment and an information center and started holding community workshops on urban farming, community food security and food sovereignty. There are families, children and day care.

The University of California's first reaction was to cut off the Gill Tract's water, charging Occupy the Farm impedes their agricultural research linked to the development of genetically-modified crops. In a subsequent meeting, the University demanded the occupiers leave as a precondition to any negotiation about the Gill Tract's future (of course it is only the condition of being occupied that has led UC to negotiate in the first place).

The City of Albany, where the site is located, held a tumultuous council meeting. UC Berkeley professors Jeffrey Romm, Claudia Carr and Miguel Altieri all entreated their employer to reconsider the public role of the research station. Over ten years ago, the professors, along with long-time urban farmer and community food security advocate Shyaam Shabaka of nearby Richmond, were part of BACUA, the original community-researcher proposal to get the University to focus the Gill Tract station on sustainable, urban agriculture. Unfortunately, the University consistently turned a deaf ear, directing research towards more profitable products and pushing forward with plans to sell off the Gill Tract.

Why has the University of California stonewalled calls for community-based, urban agriculture at the site? As it happens, the Gill Tract occupation actually threatens another massive, more lucrative, occupation going on for some time on public land grant universities.

According to a new report from Food and Water Watch, private funding of land-grant schools has been outpacing federal funding for decades. This is the result of the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act that pushed public land-grant universities to generate revenue through research that resulted in patents to be commercialized by industry. While these public-private partnerships were supposed to generate income for universities, multi-national corporations (with thin allegiance to the U.S. economy) have gobbled up the lion share of benefits by subsuming public research to the private agendas of monopolies like Tyson, Walmart, Monsanto, BP, Novartis, Cargill, Conagra, General Mills, Unilever, Mars and Coca Cola.

As an example of the egregious corporate takeover of public education, the report specifically singles out the University of California's 1988 partnership with Novartis (then the world's largest agribusiness company). With $25 million, the company was able to direct not only to the University's agricultural research, but also control the flow of publications. Novartis' donation also bought them a third of the licensing options for innovations produced in the department of plant and microbial biology -- even for research Novartis did not fund! (The recent half billion dollar grant from BP to the UC Berkeley can reasonably be expected to have a similar, though proportionately much larger, effect on the academy.)

The decades-long privatization of public universities has not only shifted research, hiring and resources away from public concerns in favor of corporate interests, it has put the financial burden for education on those students who can afford to pay and left those who cannot to fend for themselves. The unprecedented increase in student debt will be felt for decades to come.

Herein lays the irony of the term "Occupy." The 30-year trend of privatization of public goods for corporate gain is not seen as "occupying." The enclosure of public buildings, land, resources (and the research capacity of entire college departments) is seen as the "magic of the marketplace" rather than corporate piracy enabled by government policy. How is it that a couple hundred community members protecting five acres of public land become radical "occupiers" while the corporations occupying public institutions are responsible "partners?"

The obvious answer is, of course, big money. The less obvious, but more dynamically intriguing explanation is that the Occupy movement is shape-shifting, moving out from Wall Street and Oakland's Oscar Grant Plaza and drilling down to take root in a much broader, localized, public sphere. The construction of local alternatives is emerging alongside the protests against corporate business as usual. This is a socially powerful combination that embarrasses big money in the public eye. Nothing could be more devastating.

One hopes that UC Berkeley and the Occupiers can reach an agreement on the future of the Gill Tract that works to the benefit of those who need it the most: communities forging local food security with urban farming.

Regardless of the outcome, however, if grassroots actions like "Occupy the Farm" catch on, they may well do more than focus national scrutiny on the corporate takeover of public goods... they just might show us how the University can better serve the needs of those people seeking to produce fresh, healthy, local food.

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