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Regenerative agriculture and the role of UC Davis

Ministries-for-the-futureBy Roberta Millstein

Yesterday, I attended a wonderful event on the UC Davis campus.  The purpose of the event was to celebrate the new Environmental Humanities Designated Emphasis at UC Davis, and it brought together in conversation two renowned scholars, Donna Haraway (a Distinguished Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness Department and Feminist Studies Department at UC Santa Cruz) and Kim Stanley Robinson (an award-winning science fiction author who lives in Davis; the title of the event, “Ministries for the Future,” is also the title of one of Robinson’s recent books).  It was a wide-ranging, fascinating conversation – so popular that it was literally standing room only – that I can’t begin to summarize here (but you can watch online). 

Instead, I want to highlight two important and related points that Robinson made: one was about the purpose of the University of California and one was about regenerative agriculture.[1]

In the course of the conversation, Robinson gave some history of the green revolution, which involved carbon-intensive pesticides and fertilizers, feeding the world as it simultaneously grew our population.  He then stated:

You could say that UC Davis invented the green revolution, fine, but then also the UC system at large at about the turn of the century said, well technology transfer, these professors you know they're doing such great work or why can't they take 20% of their time as professor to become a private entrepreneur.  So we began to get signs of the neoliberal university, the university as a place to make money, when the state took away 80% of the UC’s funding and the UC's had to look around at each other and say, “oh my God we're a private university, now where is our money going to come from?” And so there was a UC President who …said tech transfer, each professor can take 20% of their professional time as a professor and apply it to their own businesses and make patents and copyrights for the discoveries that they made as a research scientist working for the state of California. Well, that has happened, and so the privatization of what was a public good, which is knowledge produced by our own professors, was spun off into companies left right and center, and many of those companies then gave money back to the UC.

As an academic, I find this shift in the UC’s priorities that Robinson describes extremely disturbing.  It has resulted in downplaying the role of educating graduates and undergraduates in favor of making money.  You’ll hear the echoes of this attitude in those who see the main benefit of living in Davis as the opportunity for us to benefit financially from spin-off companies, instead of, say, the opportunity for Davisites to hear stimulating, cutting-edge talks and to be part of the larger intellectual community. 

This shift prioritizes the tech-oriented disciplines over those whose goal is critical reflection on who we are and who we want to be as citizens – the social sciences and humanities – those who would ask the hard questions about things like the role of the university and the need for various types of technology.  It has also resulted in a shift of research priorities toward things that make money, which hurts not just many of the social sciences and humanities fields, but also good old-fashioned “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” science.

With respect to the shift in priorities, Robinson continued:

Regenerative agriculture can happen…It needs to be invented at UC Davis and the main thing that's in the way of it, is the faculty of the school of agriculture that are closing out into retirement time and really are corporate or semi-independent businessmen of their own and then also the administration thinking that they need also that corporate money in order to make their books balance.  But regenerative agriculture is not necessarily going to be an economic loss, but it is a necessity to draw down carbon. So our agricultural soil is depleted to the point where it has, say, 1% of carbon by weight, we've got way too much CO2 in the atmosphere, we're going to have to draw it down.  You can grow food for people and draw down carbon at the same time.  It’s UC Davis's job to invent regenerative agriculture and push it into the world, I would say, and the school of agriculture is not going to be where that is sourced out but rather from environmental humanities, from the arts and humanities going to the administration and saying, “you have a moral obligation that's philosophical, it's historical, it's political, it's economic – all of the things that are not the actual agricultural professors because they are stuck in a paradigm that needs to be transcended.”

To these wise and insightful points that I agree with, I would add that Davisites have a role to play here as well, not only in prioritizing the preservation of farmland but also in pushing for practices like regenerative agriculture that can make a real difference in the climate crisis.  Regenerative agriculture is already happening, but if UC Davis’s researchers were to turn their skills to it in earnest, techniques could be developed to enhance its efficiency and practicality.  These techniques could then spread to other places in the world, multiplying the positive effects of the research.

Davisites need to support and encourage these efforts.  The times we are in call on Davis and UC Davis to prioritize human, non-human, and planetary health. 


[1] From Wikipedia: “Regenerative agriculture is a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food and farming systems. It focuses on topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, enhancing ecosystem services, supporting biosequestration, increasing resilience to climate change, and strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil.” (


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