Announcing the 2022 Seed Grant Recipients

April 6, 2022
By Berkeley Food Institute

The Berkeley Food Institute (BFI) is thrilled to announce the faculty awardees of this year’s Seed Grant Program. Since its inception in 2014, the BFI Seed Grant Program has led to amazing results, funding collaborative, interdisciplinary research aimed at the complexities of contemporary agri-food systems.

The program consists of two types of grants: Collaboration and Research. Collaboration grants range from $1,000 to $10,000 and are intended to support the early stages of interdisciplinary faculty teams aimed at fostering university-community partnerships. Research grants up to $100,000 support two years of fully articulated research projects conducted by faculty and community partners.

This year, BFI asked for project proposals that examined one of two cross-cutting urgent themes: adaptation to climate change, and agri-food systems inequality.

Climate change poses a number of compounding threats on agri-food systems, from drought and wildfire to an influx of pests and diseases. While climate mitigation remains essential, BFI asked for proposals that support adaptation solutions in a time of climate crisis. At the same time, a resilient food system also calls for projects that tackle structural inequalities related to race, class, and gender embedded in the capitalist political economy.

This year’s recipients take on those challenges, from coffee farms in Costa Rica, to agroecosystems of Hawai’i, to subsistence farming communities in rural Nepal, to Indigenous food systems collaborations here on UC Berkeley’s campus. Here are the four projects supported by the 2022 BFI Seed Grant Program.

Headshot of Lauren KroizThis first of this year’s collaboration grants will fund $10,000 toward a project titled “‘oṭṭoy: A Healing Collaboration Between Cafe Ohlone and the Hearst Museum.” In March 2020, Cafe Ohlone/mak-‘amham co-founders Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino temporarily closed “the only Ohlone restaurant in the world” due to the pandemic. But Cafe Ohlone recently announced its return this upcoming summer, in the courtyard of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology on UC Berkeley’s campus.

The new iteration of Cafe Ohlone will provide a dedicated space on campus to highlight Indigenous foods, languages, histories, and environmental stewardship. The space will also provide a platform for collaboration between tribal members and UC Berkeley faculty.

The collaboration grant will support a cross-discipline group of faculty, led by Lauren Kroiz, Associate Professor in the History of Art Department and Faculty Director at the Hearst Museum, to work alongside Cafe Ohlone to implement a campus wide Indigenous Food Systems Research Hub. In addition to sharing native teas and traditional foods, the collaboration will tackle larger questions about how institutions across UC Berkeley can better contribute to systemic healing and Indigenous food sovereignty.

‘oṭṭoy means to repair or to mend in Chochenyo, the original language of the East Bay,” Kroiz says. “As part of the museum’s acknowledgement of our institutional role in historical harm to Ohlone communities, this project is part of our work toward developing new, better relations centered on place-based repair.”

Layla Kwong and Lia Fernald headshot

Another collaboration grant of $9,811 has been awarded to a team led by the School of Public Health’s Layla Kwong, Assistant Professor in Environmental Health Sciences, and Lia Fernald, Professor in Community Health Sciences. The project will take a community-driven approach to understanding the impact of biodigester systems in rural farming communities in Nepal.

Over the past two decades, nearly half a million biodigester systems designed to compost human and livestock waste have been installed in subsistence farming communities across Nepal. The goal of these systems is to provide organic fertilizer for sustainable food production while combating climate change through methane capture and reuse as cooking fuel. But these systems aren’t a silver bullet. Broken parts, lack of maintenance, unsafe handling of hazardous fertilizer, and other issues can lead to unintended health outcomes like child diarrhea.

Along with an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Berkeley and Nepal, Kwong and Fernald will work with community partners to assess barriers to safe and effective use of biodigesters.

A research grant of $99,496 will go to a team led by Rodrigo Almeida, Professor of Emerging Infectious Disease Ecology in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management (ESPM). The project, called “The Implications of Cultivation Systems and Climates on Pathogen Diversity and Coffee Resilience,” takes a close look at Xylella fastidiosa, a pathogen that has been causing coffee leaf scorch on coffee plants in Costa Rica and other coffee producing regions.

Headshot of Rodrigo AlmeidaThe global coffee industry provides the livelihood for more than 100 million people, but diseases like coffee leaf scorch impact coffee quality and yields, particularly as climate change could be increasing the severity and transmission of such diseases. Alongside researchers at the University of Costa Rica, Almeida’s lab will collect and analyze X. fastidiosa from a variety of agricultural landscapes and climates in Costa Rica, including both traditional polycultures, or shade-grown coffee trees, and commercial monoculture farms.

“The goal of this project is to determine if polycultures harbor more diverse and less aggressive plant pathogens compared to monocultures,” Almeida says. “The reduced detrimental impacts of diseases due to polycultures would increase the resilience of coffee farmers in Costa Rica.”

Finally, a research grant totaling $100,000 has been awarded to a project titled “Upena of Pilina: Revitalizing Connections Between Kānaka ‘Ōiwi Food Systems and Arthropods.” Conservation biologists refer to Hawai’i as the “endangered species capital of the world.” Though Hawai’i makes up less than 0.2 percent of land in the United States, more than a quarter of the nation’s endangered species are endemic to the state. At the same time, food supply disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic shined a light on Hawai’i’s reliance on imported food — therefore stressing a need to ramp up production on local agroecosystems.

Headshot of Rosemary Gillespie and Elizabeth HooverIn collaboration with Kamehameha Schools, ESPM Professor Rosemary Gillespie and ESPM Associate Professor Elizabeth Hoover will connect molecular ecology and agroecology to understand the connections between arthropod biodiversity and agricultural diversification. Ultimately, the project aims to equip Kānaka ‘Ōiwi (Indigenous Hawaiian) farmers with data on biodiversity relevant to their food sovereignty.

“There is a need to set guidelines on how we produce food moving forward that can work with biodiversity in the long term,” says Leke Hutchins, ESPM PhD candidate and graduate student assistant on the project. “This collaboration has the potential to inspire state, federal, and other nonprofits across the island chain to view agroecosystems as an ally to biodiversity management instead of as an enemy.”

Congratulations to all seed grant recipients! Thank you to everyone who applied, and to our hardworking review committee who made this program possible.

Follow along for updates about our seed grant program.