Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Rediscovering our Roots as a Land-Grant, Agricultural Experiment Station University and Fostering its Potential

By Dennis Baldocchi

In 1862, during the midst of the Civil War, Congress had a bold vision. They passed the Morrill Act which provided land grants to states to establish colleges of agriculture and mechanical arts to teach practical agriculture, science, military science and engineering. It was on this foundation that the University of California was launched. And, with this initial investment of public funds towards the agricultural experiment station, Cal has become the premier public university in the world.

The mission of land-grant, Agricultural Experiment Station universities is defined by the Hatch Act of 1887 and the McIntire-Stennis Act of 1962. That mission is to conduct research on our food-fiber-health-natural resource system. Examples of research topics include: soil and water conservation and use; plant and animal production, protection, and health; processing, distribution, safety, marketing, and utilization of food and agricultural products; forestry, including range management, range products and urban forestry; aquaculture; home economics and family life; human nutrition; rural and community development; sustainable agriculture; molecular biology; and biotechnology.

Unfortunately, I find few of my fellow faculty or students are aware of our humble origins and our obligations to this mission. In contrast, when I was an undergraduate and graduate student at fellow land grant universities, two generations ago, many of my classmates wore seed-corn hats and cowboy belt buckles and we aspired to feed the world through the auspices of better and more efficient agriculture. Students in this regalia and aspiration are rare, if not extinct, on the Cal campus in 2022.

I concede that our past reliance on industrial agriculture has had a large cost on our environment and our health. It has produced unsustainable mining of our soils and aquifers through cultivation and irrigation. Excess fertilization is causing air pollution, nitrogen runoff and eutrophication of waterways. Our reliance on food products from corn is leading to high incidents of obesity.

alfalfa field on Bouldin Island

While the function of the land-grant universities may be obscure to many at Cal with urban and suburban origins, I am happy to report that its mission is broad, inclusive, evolving and thriving. To remain relevant to the problems facing society and to educate a much broader swath of society, it reflects the needs of changing demographics and diverse stakeholders of our great State. In other words, we are more than just an ‘Ag School’.

In this Blog, I aim to explain how a land grant university, like Cal, is leveraging its federal and state support from the Agricultural Experiment Station to serve the citizens of California, our nation and the world.

The mission of the Land Grant Colleges is accomplished on campus through the research activities and instruction of faculty and cooperative extension specialists in the Rausser College of Natural Resources. This work is supported and funded, in part, through our connection with the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Federal and State Agricultural Experiment Stations.

Our work shares many attributes with slogans you may have heard on the radio like, a ‘Just, Verdant and Peaceful World’ by the MacArthur Foundation or ‘Thrive’ by Kaiser Health. An overarching theme includes promoting economic activity across the state. To achieve this goal, we must develop an inclusive and equitable society, with healthy people and communities. This will not happen unless we protect our natural resources and build resilient ecosystems and communities in the face of a warming world, with rising CO2, as well as busts and booms in rainfall. It is only when these pieces come together can we produce healthy and abundant food for all Californians, and supply the world with our cornucopia of fruits, nuts, vegetables, dairy products and wines in a sustainable and affordable way.

Berkeley is unique in that we do not tackle these complex challenges with research done in intellectual silos. We encourage multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary work through the connected efforts of the departments of Agricultural and Resource Economics, the Energy and Resources Group, Environmental Science, Policy and Management, Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology, and Plant and Microbial Biology. These groups provide needed expertise in economics, business, and law, in biology across the scales of cells, microbes, plants and ecosystems, in the physical environment, that includes climate, air, soils and water and in social, energy and health sciences that tie communities together and help them prosper. Consequently, our faculty and their teams of students, postdocs and technicians are poised and ready to tackle many of the pressing problems that Society and California faces.

As an intellectual community we are addressing many of the interconnected, complex and questions relating to a changing world. How do we better manage forests in the face of drought, fire and insect outbreaks? How can we share water among the competing and legitimate stakeholders across the state (farms, cities, fish, ecosystems)? How can we rehabilitate the degrading groundwater and air that the growing populations in the Central Valley depend upon? How do we decarbonize our energy system?; how fast can this be done, what are the costs, what infrastructure do we need? What are the pros, cons, limits and unintended consequences of developing natural climate solutions? We are also providing solutions and tools to answer these questions, with researchers working on more efficient photosynthesis using CRISPR and finding ways to produce better food with fewer inorganic inputs.

The research and instruction provided by the Rausser College of Natural Resources is helping Cal to produce the next generation of leaders and a talented work force to solve these pressing societal problems. Examples of former students who are leaders include such as Prof. Asmeret Berhe, Director of Science of the Department of Energy and Thom Porter, Former Director/Chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Despite successes and intellectual bounty that the land grant has brought to the citizens of California and the world, we are also conscious of the negative impacts of our origins as a land grant university. All of the land grants given to the States were on territory that was resided on by indigenous Native Americans. Cal, in particular, is taking steps to acknowledge the fact that our origins as a land grant was also a land grab from the indigenous Ohlone people who resided in this area. It is noteworthy that we are also taking steps to rectify this injustice. For example, faculty such as Profs. Scott Stephens and Peter Nelson are creating partnerships with scientists and Indigenous leaders from the western states. Their goal is to build beneficial relations between stakeholders and the land and to use traditional knowledge to restore resilience in our ecosystems . Efforts include hosting workshops at our Forestry Camp to share traditional land knowledge between elders and the new generation.

For students interested in fields and questions related to the many facets of the environment and natural resources, please check out our College. For faculty in other Colleges, who interested in finding solutions to interesting set of challenging problems facing the world and society, reach out to our colleagues; already Prof. Jill Banfield and Nobel Laureate, Jennifer Doudna, have developed a world class collaboration on geomicrobiology and many of our faculty are in volved in the Berkeley Climate Change Network. And for Alumni and friends inspired by our work, please consider donating to our college to support scholarships, fellowships, chaired professorships and to re-invest in our research facilities.