Plant Futures: How Higher Education Is Working with Plant-Based Farming

Plant Futures: How Higher Education Is Working with Plant-Based Farming

  • MyLia Moua Chambers

Earlier this year, while scrolling through my University of California, Berkeley, emails, I stumbled upon a message about a course called Plant Futures. As a public health graduate student, I was intrigued: Here was a class examining the world’s current food systems and envisioning the future food systems to come with a comprehensive, multidisciplinary lens that included public health, business, and more. I decided to enroll and see where this innovative framework took me.

What is Plant Futures?

Plant Futures was developed by Samantha Derrick, a public health graduate student at Berkeley, for a plant-focused approach to health, business, agriculture, farming, and policy. Every semester, Plant Futures organizes a credit-granting conference at Berkeley open to all students. Speakers from a variety of sectors (agriculture, biotech, academia, etc.) present plant-based solutions for the future of the planet and call attention to how animal-dependent our current food system is. The conference is designed to speak to all attendees regardless of their own food choices and to provide news and evidence for the benefits of a more plant-centric food system.

Plant Futures students are grouped with businesses to work on plant-based solutions to food system problems, and I was very fortunate to work with Tyler Whitley, director of The Transfarmation Project®. Our group’s goal was to evaluate the impact of a farm transitioning from chicken farming to high-tunnel greenhouse strawberry farming. We measured the economic, environmental, health, animal, worker, and community impact of one farm “transfarming.”

Why We Need Plant-Based Education

Berkeley is just south of California’s Central Valley, a massively productive agricultural hotbed. Unfortunately, the Central Valley has faced some of the worst air quality and droughts ever recorded, along with the challenges of farm workers’ rights disputes and problematic dairy farming practices. I know about the hardships farmworkers face: As a child of refugee immigrants from Laos, I grew up in the Central Valley with my parents and family members, who often did farm work. Because of the low pay and difficult conditions, my family moved to Minnesota to find better economic opportunities. 

Even for those trying to focus specifically on plants, animal agriculture’s might and influence still loom large in the Central Valley. When I moved back 20 years after leaving, I returned as a married mother of three and public school teacher. The public high school where my oldest daughter is a junior has students select a technical education pathway to prepare for a future career, a common practice across U.S. high schools. My daughter chose horticulture, a pathway under California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Standards. However, the program is based on the Future Farmers of America (FFA) pathway standards, which obviously focus heavily on animal agriculture.

Because of this FFA influence, my daughter’s homework assignments are animal-centric, with no relation to horticulture. Students are advised about the FFA and their system for selling and buying animals. Her homework has included labeling the anatomy of steers and heifers; she has taken photos of herself with bunnies and rabbits during horticulture class. This animal agriculture coursework in her horticulture program gives me concerns about the integrity of the curriculum. 

The FFA is highly involved with Central Valley students, who are seen as potential recruits for industrial animal agriculture. Local high school seniors who are involved with FFA often receive large scholarships provided by mainly animal-based farms. In the Clovis Unified School District, located in a predominantly upper-middle-class suburb of Fresno, most high schools have animal agriculture feed lots, fields, and complexes as large or larger than the community colleges.  

How We Can Support Plant-Based Student Curricula

We must challenge the problematic influence of industrial farming on agriculture and natural sciences education in our schools. Students like my daughter who choose to pursue horticulture and plant-based agriculture should be able to do so without the FFA getting in the way.

One solution is to provide additional resources outside FFA-influenced education. The New Roots Institute, previously known as Factory Farming Awareness Coalition, sends guest educators to classrooms to help students explore the connections between industrial animal agriculture and issues like climate change, social justice, public health, and animal welfare. They even provide high school students with summer advocacy training.

And since animal agriculture has programs for children, pro-plant agriculture should as well. Generating the momentum to push back against the status quo of factory animal farming can start at a young age; giving young people opportunities to experience plant-based agriculture without animal agriculture invading is crucial. Mushroom farming, local flower gardening, and even floral arrangement workshops for students could go a long way today for plant futures tomorrow.

MyLia Moua Chambers is a master of public health student at University of California, Berkeley. She is a health and physical education public school teacher in California’s Central Valley.