UC Berkeley Professor Miguel Altieri may have a few words for Monsanto Saturday, Feb. 23.

Imagine sitting UC Berkeley Professor Miguel Altieri—one of the nation’s most outspoken advocates of sustainable farming—down at the table with a representative from Monsanto, the world's biggest producer of genetically modified seeds, for a debate about GMOs. What would happen? Cat fight? Chair throwing?

A group of UC Santa Cruz students and staff will soon find out, as they’re doing just that this Saturday. Incredibly, their goal is hope is not that a spontaneous episode of Jerry Springer breaks out. In fact, quite the opposite.

“We are looking to uplift both perspectives, and evolve in the conversation together”, says UCSC staff member and conference organizer Tim Galarneau.

The conversation is a part of the sixth annual Strengthening the Roots “justice summit” at UCSC. The conference, which brings together students, activists, farmers and community members to discuss the issues facing our food and seed systems, will host the panel “Seeding Sustainability: Hunger, Biotech and the Future of Food Systems,” featuring perspectives from both sides of the GMO debate.

Alteri, a UC Berkeley entomologist professor, is well known for his work in shaping the field of agroecology—a budding field of science that puts agriculture in a broader ecological context.  He recently was featured in Dirt! The Movie, which explores the scientific and human importance of soil.
Another strong voice against GMOs on the panel is UCSC alum Eric Holtz-Gimenez, the executive director of Food First: The Institute for Food and Development Policy. It’s a food policy think tank that aims to “end the injustices that cause hunger, poverty and environmental degradation throughout the world.”

Speaking on the behalf of the biotechnology industry, which is responsible for the development of genetically modified seed, is Kent Bradford.  Bradford is a professor at UC Davis, a university known for its strong ties to the biotechnology industry.  At UC Davis, he works closely with the seed and plant breeding industry.

Panel organizers have also invited representatives from both Monsanto and Arcadia Biosciences, but are still waiting to hear back from both of these big names in biotechnology.

The panel discussion is especially timely after the recent defeat of Proposition 37, which would have required the labeling of any foods that could contain GMOs.  A majority of Santa Cruz County residents voted for Prop 37.  

By bringing in voices from both sides of the issue, the panel offers a new approach to the conversation.  “For all too long, the alternative movement was operating at a distance,”says Galarneau.  “If we continue to hold up the grassroots warrior without hearing the other side, we are never going to move forward. We want to create a space to hear.”  


System Fail

For the past five years, students and staff have organized the conference as a way to bring college students from various UCs, CSUs and community colleges together with community members and academics to discuss the food system.  

In its sixth year, the conference is introducing seed issues as part of a collaboration with UCSC's Demeter Seed Library, which was founded by UCSC student Andrew Whitman in 2011. Every year the library gives away seeds to gardeners, students and farmers, with the promise that they will grow out the seed and return a portion of the newly grown seed at the end of the season.  Through continuously growing out and saving seed, the seed will adjust to the specific microclimates of Santa Cruz County, creating a diverse and resilient seed supply.

By bringing seeds into the forefront of the conversation, the conference is helping participants dream up better ways of farming.  

“This is about re-envisioning what our agrifood system looks like”, says UCSC student and conference organizer Elan Goldbart.

Along with the panel, the conference will host two days of workshops and discussions this Saturday and Sunday, plus a mixer on Friday evening.  There will be hands-on seed saving demonstrations, and a Saturday afternoon seed swap.   The conference is open to the public, with info at seedlibraries.org.

“This really is about the seed, the fundamental unit of agriculture”, says Goldbart.  “We rely on this unit for everything, and we have experienced a disconnection from the seed system.  It's about reconnecting.”