Berkeley Food Institute aims to help transform the world’s food system

Where else but Berkeley — home of both Chez Panisse and the Free Speech Movement — would the nation’s top public university launch an institute whose aim is not just better food for all but a fundamental transformation of the world’s food systems?

UC Berkeley’s new Berkeley Food Institute has nothing less as its goal. The institute deploys the intellect, energy and influence of five colleges to connect with farmers and environmentalists, with people struggling to feed their families, with the food industry and with policymakers and powerbrokers to help supercharge the push for a fair and sustainable food system.

Claire Kremen, Alastair Iles

Claire Kremen and Alastair Iles of the College of Natural Resources, faculty co-directors of the Berkeley Food Institute. (UC Berkeley photos)

“We aim — through research, education and outreach to citizens and policymakers — to help transform the global food system into one that is diverse, just, resilient and healthy,” says Claire Kremen, a professor of environmental science, policy and management in the College of Natural Resources and co-faculty director of the institute with CNR colleague Alastair Iles.

At its launch this fall, BFI brings together the College of Natural Resources, Berkeley Law, the Goldman School of Public Policy, the Graduate School of Journalism and the School of Public Health. Already, the institute has attracted some three dozen faculty from across campus, and many more have expressed an interest.

“When it comes to creating a new food system that can sustainably produce and distribute nutritious and adequate food on a global level, the challenges are complex and the stakes could not be higher,” says UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. “Success will require the coordinated involvement of numerous academic disciplines, from public health to environmental science to public policy. By drawing on Berkeley’s comprehensive excellence and commitment to public service, this new institute is very well-positioned to effect meaningful change.”

Its goal is to help the food system grow a new body, as it were, rather than trying to apply Band-aids to some of its wounds.
– BFI co-director Alastair Iles

The East Bay is well-known as an epicenter of citizen innovation around food systems, environmental action and food justice. At the same time, UC Berkeley is a center of pioneering science — at the forefront of academic work and education in many relevant fields, including agro-ecology, biology, health and nutrition related to food, agricultural economics and governance, food policy and law.

The problems BFI will tackle are well known but “wicked,” seemingly intractable — rising hunger in a world where more and more people are obese; environmental degradation caused by food production; the challenges of both new technologies like genetically engineered crops and the unpredictable effects of climate change on agriculture; the exploitation of agri-food workers; the segregation of the poor from access to healthful food.

But BFI promises an all-new approach, according to Kremen, an ecologist who specializes in biodiversity. Research will be a focus, but as a beginning, not an end. It will be harnessed to drive change.


Ann Thrupp, Berkeley Food Institute executive director. (UC Berkeley photo)

Working with change-makers in the community, BFI will focus on identifying impediments to systemic change, devising new methods that break down or work around the barriers, and creating communication channels to spread information broadly to the public and to those with their hands on the levers of power.

“Its goal is to help the food system grow a new body, as it were, rather than trying to apply Band-aids to some of its wounds,” says faculty co-director Iles, policy expert and associate professor of environmental science, policy and management.

The institute developed almost organically in a campus environment and community where interest in food — how it’s grown, how it drives health and policies, how the industry’s workers are paid, why some people don’t have enough, as well as where to eat it — has expanded exponentially and helped catalyze the national food movement.

When Michael Pollan, a professor in the journalism school and influential voice in the food movement, launched Edible Education 101 at UC Berkeley in 2011, the course drew such a crowd that it had to be moved to Wheeler Auditorium, one of Berkeley’s largest classrooms. It has become an annual staple, now under the BFI aegis. Pollan, author of several popular books that have contributed to the rise of the food movement, sits on the BFI’s executive committee.

Piglets As connections were made among faculty and students in different fields across campus, and between academia and people working in the community, the question arose: With so many people doing so much good work to improve food systems, why aren’t things changing faster? Can Berkeley help?

Initial funding has poured in from individuals and family foundations. Major contributors include the Epstein/Roth Foundation and the 11th Hour Project of the Schmidt Family Foundation. Kremen has said all funding will come from partners who share the institute’s values.

The prospect of managing an ambitious effort to effect change lured sustainable agriculture expert Ann Thrupp into the BFI executive director’s seat in Giannini Hall. A former Environmental Protection Agency specialist and previously Sustainable Agriculture Director at the World Resources Institute, Thrupp arrived Sept. 9 from her most recent position as manager of sustainability and organic development at Fetzer Vineyards.

“What excites me is that we really are trying to foster connections between research and real-world action, to help take all the amazing work that’s going on in food systems to a level of greater visibility and impact,” she says.

Policy comes into play at every level of the food system — food production and safety, labor, transportation, energy, nutrition, school lunches, even grocery stores and restaurants — and a great deal of research exists already on each topic. But Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy, points out that little research exists on how the pieces fit together, and even less into alternatives to the current system.

Saru Jayaraman, Olivier De Schutter

Visiting scholars Saru Jayaraman and Olivier De Schutter.

A busy fall

Food Exchanges: The first fruit of the Berkeley Food Institute’s public programming, this series of moderated conversations among Berkeley faculty and other experts began Sept. 23 with “Adapting to Climate Change: Farmers at the Frontline.”

The next panel, “The Right to Food: Reshaping Policies for Development and Public Health,” is set for Oct. 28. Moderated by Edward Wasserman, journalism dean. it will feature visiting scholar Olivier De Schutter, a specialist on food rights, Lia Fernald of the School of Public Health and Alain de Janvry, an agricultural economist in CNR.

Horace Albright Lecture: In November, former U.S. deputy agriculture secretary Kathleen Merrigan will sit down for a public conversation on with Michael Pollan on What’s Next for the Food Movement, as part of the annual Albright lecture co-sponsored by CNR and BFI.

Visiting scholars: Two influential players in the food world are visiting BFI scholars this fall: Olivier De Schutter (see above), United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food; and Saru Jayaraman, a nationally known researcher and activist on issues of the unfair treatment of food workers.

New models of providing food in a society are very likely to have “strikingly different implications for nutrition, the cost of food, the kinds of jobs provided to workers, and our overall happiness and well-being,” Brady says. “By conceiving of alternatives to the current system, we can then think of pathways that will get us where we want to be. Without such big thinking, we will probably be stuck in a system that has serious flaws.“

The institute held a symposium in May to help hone its agenda and draw in players from all over the food system — faculty, students, national leaders and people from non-profit organizations and urban agriculture, including critics of the university.

Along with panel discussions and workshops, the symposium sparked conversations among food-minded people who work in separate areas and don’t always talk to one another. Berkeley Law professor Stephen Sugarman caught the institute’s interest with his fresh approach to obesity — exactly the kind of research, Kremen and others said later, that the institute hopes to support.

Sugarman teaches food law and policy, among other subjects, and proposes regulating the food industry by giving it targets — a manufacturer would have to cut sugar in its foods by 5 percent in five years, for example.

“We’d leave it to industry to figure out the best way to meet these targets and still satisfy consumers,” says Sugarman. “Industry gets to decide what it wants to do.”

Researching the idea would require work in public health, to estimate the effect of the target on obesity; in law and policy, to work out implementation details and unintended consequences; in economics, to calculate potential costs or savings from the target; in communications to help build public and political support.

BFI is in the throes of planning its initial research agenda and hopes to have the first projects approved by December. All will need to be interdisciplinary, collaborative and “really aimed to effect change,” says Thrupp.

Keeping voices from all parts of the food system involved remains important to the institute’s mission, Thrupp says; how to do that is a work in progress.

“This is an opportunity to build bridges and partnerships with organizations involved in urban agriculture and food justice issues here,” she adds.

Longtime advocates for food system change say BFI could prove a game changer for the movement.

“There are very few institutions of this caliber that are working in a deep systemic way to address both the very dire issues of low-income communities and food but also the sustainability issues around food production,” says Paula Daniels, founder of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council and food and water policy adviser to Antonio Villaraigosa when he served as mayor there.

Daniels, who taught a course in food policy in Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design last year and was a symposium panelist, adds: “It is a very important contribution to meaningful change in the system to address its inequities.”

Fred Kirschenmann — North Dakota farmer, philosopher and one of sustainable ag’s pioneering leaders — said Berkeley could be a significant force in countering “the powerful people very committed to maintaining the current industrial system” and their allies among universities in the nation’s commodity belt and south, he says.

By virtue of its approach and its location, “the Berkeley Food Institute is in a unique position to form another powerful political/academic influence focused on the new emerging food system which can garner the support of urban populations.” Eventually, politicians won’t be able to ignore urban voters when it comes to food, says Kirschenmann, fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

“Then,” Kirschenmann adds, “we could begin to see some significant changes.”

More information on the Berkeley Food Institute is available on the institute’s website.

Read also The new Berkeley Food Institute: On a mission on UC’s Food Blog.