Berkeley Food Institute: For a resilient food system

Ann Thrupp

L. Ann Thrupp, executive director of Berkeley Food Institute

This fall has seen the launch of an exciting new food organization in Berkeley.

Five different UC Berkeley schools have joined together to develop a research institute dedicated to studying and galvanizing the transition to a more resilient and just food system.

The Berkeley Food Institute aims to “foster innovative connections between research, education, policy, practice, and social movements to develop and strengthen sustainable food and agriculture systems that are healthy, just, diverse and resilient.”

It’s a collaboration between The College of Natural Resources (CNR), the Goldman School of Public Policy, the Graduate School of Journalism, Berkeley Law, and the School of Public Health, and it is only  fitting that it should arise in Berkeley, a city with a rich history of activism and leadership in the food arena.

The institute is headed by L. Ann Thrupp, who was previously Manager of Sustainability and Organic Development at Fetzer and Bonterra Vineyards. The effort, which has been two years in development, began its roll-out last week with the first of several posts explaining its mission. We republish it here with permission.

By Ann Brody Guy

“Food commands attention and brings people together,” says L. Ann Thrupp, executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute, a new interdisciplinary research center comprising five different UC Berkeley schools. “It touches on every aspect of human society.”

It’s bringing academia together, too. Food research centers have been springing up at campuses across the United States as higher education takes on the complex topic from multiple perspectives.

Global climate change, a growing world population, broad public health concerns from hunger to obesity, and a tangle of complex policies from the farm bill to food safety — these are among the large-scale issues that have gradually been changing the dialogue about food.

“The academic community is recognizing that when it comes to food, it’s no longer possible to tease out agriculture from environmental, public policy, social justice and public health issues,” Thrupp says.

UC Berkeley’s new initiative is ambitious. In development for nearly two years before its launch this fall, the center has a mission to help achieve transformation in the food and agriculture systems, making them more diverse, healthy, resilient and just — at local, regional, national and international levels.

The Institute will pursue that transformation by supporting and galvanizing collaborative research efforts across its five partner units — Berkeley Law, the Goldman School of Public Policy, the Graduate School of Journalism, the School of Public Health, and the College of Natural Resources (CNR) — and with faculty affiliates throughout the University.

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The new institute says its vision goes well beyond publishing in academic journals.

But, as befits Berkeley’s storied history of activism and leadership, the Institute’s vision is larger than publishing in academic journals. Its leaders plan to break down the traditional boundaries between academia and society and connect with boots-on-the-ground stakeholders who can help identify knowledge gaps and use research to bring about real changes in the food system.

“It is not enough to conduct research — the fruits of this research must be delivered broadly to civil society and to policy makers,” says Claire Kremen, a conservation biology professor and one of the Institute’s two faculty co-directors. “That’s why the schools of journalism and of public policy are key collaborators. They have the expertise to communicate our findings to key sectors and actors in society and government.”

Thrupp echoes the point. “Making an impact will require the engagement of multiple sectors, including scientists, farmers, food system workers and policymakers — at all levels,” she says. “The Berkeley Food Institute will help facilitate those crucial connections.”

This fall, two heavy-hitters from far-flung corners of the food world are helping the Institute start making those connections, as its first visiting scholars. Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, fights hunger worldwide and defends food as a “human right.” Saru Jayaraman, head of the UC Berkeley’s Food Labor Center, has fought to improve wages and working conditions for food workers, and to broadly communicate the issues they face.

The Institute is also taking its questions, perspectives and experts straight to the people. A slate of public programs got off the ground this week (Sept. 23) with the panel “Adapting to Climate Change: Farmers at the Frontline,” which included professors of agricultural and resource economics; agroecology; and soil science; as well as a farmer and a journalist.

The next panel, “The Right to Food: Reshaping Policies for Development and Public Health,”  scheduled for Oct. 28, is moderated by J-School Dean Edward Wasserman and features De Schutter and public health and ag-econ faculty.

The fall programs culminate with “What’s Next for the Food Movement?” a conversation between author and journalism professor Michael Pollan and, fresh from the Obama administration, former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan. It’s moderated by journalist Linda Schacht.

The dynamic public events series, what organizers are calling “The Food Exchange,” is just a taste of the conversations, investigations, and collaborations to come, both behind the scenes and in a public forum.

“It’s inspiring that so many researchers, students, stakeholders and community members are interested and involved in the Berkeley Food Institute and our mission,” Thrupp says.

This article originally ran on the Food Blog of the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

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  • Mel Content

    Once again, the loopy Utopianistas on the left spend more time trying to re-invent the wheel on non-issues than solve real problems. Perhaps this is their tacit admission that they have no real solutions in dealing with poverty, violent crime, et. al.

  • Mel Content

    It also means that a political agenda will be pursued regardless of what the research says

    When is this NOT the case when dealing with Berkeley progressives?

  • “and the ground’s not cold”

    Aw, Mel, c’mon: food security, societal resilience, and widely distributed production of essentials are ways to fight poverty, violent crime, etc.

    The system we are living in right now is creating huge inequality and fragility. It relies on an approach to policing and incarceration that is helping to bankrupt governments fiscally and morally even while it fails to do the job it’s supposedly there to do. It relies on unsustainable modes of production and an energy-intensive system of global commerce.

    The biggest problems with projects like this institute are that there aren’t nearly enough of them and they aren’t yet aggressive enough.

  • Biker 94703

    Leave no buzzword behind.

  • dennis


  • skeptic

    And by “aggressive” you probably mean aggressively ideological. As in, we already know what’s best, all we need to to is convince the rest of you idiots how good and pure and right we are. Thank, but not thanks. And not with my tax dollars.

  • reality bites

    By “aggressive” I mean urgent, as if the continuity of civil society might be at stake. I do not mean “ideological”, that is your projection.

  • guest

    OK, it’s stupid, and the people involved are good people with the best of intentions, but I can’t let this go. Academic departments set up from the get-go to push ideological agendas have been a disaster. That is, they have invariably lead to recruitment of faculty that have no attachment to intellectual rigor, and no commitment to honest debate. It’s not as if the subjects of previous flavors-of-the month could not have been hard hitting, honest, yeasty sources of real discourse, but they didn’t, because they were rapidly transformed into Pravda-like mouthpieces for a few, politically connected Lefty academics who saw an opportunity and grabbed it. You end up with intellectual train wrecks like post-modernism, or a bunch of privileged tenured academics who confuse mutual masturbation with real debate. I hope to God this Institute isn’t just an other excuse for Foodies like Pollan to congratulate themselves for their good intentions without ever genuinely challenging their basic assumptions.

  • guest

    By urgent, you mean apocalyptic, which is a classic position taken by radicals who want to substitute action for thought. Assuming you are ready to take a nuanced, non-ideological view of what is wrong and what needs to be done, I’d be happy to drop the “ideological” label. Why don’t you share with the rest of us the last time you concluded that the mainstream Left was being silly and counterproductive?

  • reality bites

    By urgent, you mean apocalyptic,

    Yes I do. To quote Berkeleyside on a related item:

    Mogulof said the the cause of the explosion “appears to be related to an incident of vandalism on our electrical system.” He said vandals had been digging up copper grounding wires on campus, “which caused extensive damage to the electrical system.”

    The vandalism was discovered late last week, but “it appears it had been going on for quite a while.”

  • Mel Content

    Aw, Mel, c’mon: food security, societal resilience, and widely distributed production of essentials are ways to fight poverty, violent crime, etc.

    Bullsh!t. This is all about make-work projects for ideologues who can’t function in the real world.