Aggies Forever: Evolution of a Founding Faculty

Land and Food Systems student Afton Halloran questions industrial agriculture and aims to be an activist for marginalized farmers - photo by Martin Dee
Land and Food Systems student Afton Halloran questions industrial agriculture and aims to be an activist for marginalized farmers – photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 12 | Dec. 6, 2007

By Lorraine Chan

More than 50 years separate their student years at the Faculty of Land and Food Systems (LFS), yet common threads link the experiences of Trevor Arscott and Afton Halloran. Neither would hesitate to be known as an “Aggie,” the affectionate nickname that students at this faculty have embraced for decades.

And both would attribute their success to a faculty that positions itself on the forefront of social and scientific change. One of UBC’s three founding faculties, LFS (formerly Agricultural Sciences) changed its name in 2005 to better reflect its interdisciplinary research and focus on sustainability.

This holistic approach to growing and consuming food is what fuels her passion, says Halloran, a third-year student in the faculty’s Global Resource Systems (GRS) program, launched in 2000.

Over the next year, she will travel to Norway and Uganda to study natural resource conflicts and resolutions around such issues as land, water, forestry and food. The GRS program requires students to complete an international exchange to better apply theory to real-life situations.

Halloran says she feels a sense of common purpose with her peers and professors.

“I’ve gained confidence in being more outspoken about the things that I’m passionate about because of the people I’ve met here,” says Halloran, former president of Sprouts, Canada’s largest student-run food co-op, located in the basement of UBC’s Student Union Building.

Recently, she put herself on the 100-mile diet — which advocates eating only locally-grown foods — to see how this would impact her life. “It wasn’t bad. The only thing we’re really missing is carbohydrates, which are limited to corn and potatoes.”

Industrial agriculture is the norm now for most of us, she adds, but this paradigm is one she questions and hopes to change. While introducing the UBC Farm to elementary school children, she was shocked to see how little they knew about growing food. “They just assumed that vegetables come from the supermarket.”

Halloran’s long-term goal is to advocate for marginalized farmers locally and globally, and to start up a seed bank for heritage plants and vegetables on Vancouver Island, “hopefully, near Ladysmith where I was lucky enough to grow up on 18 acres climbing trees and planting vegetables.”

A similar passion for agriculture infused Arscott’s time at UBC, an alumnus who completed his BSc in 1956. His focus was on soil science, a fascination that sparked a successful 40-year career.

As a teenager growing up near Kingston, Jamaica, Arscott worked on sugar cane plantations and at age 21, won a government agricultural scholarship to attend UBC.

“UBC was an immense and pleasurable experience,” says Arscott, a professor emeritus of agronomy at Ohio State University (OSU). “Here was this little guy coming out of the small island of Jamaica and being exposed to the world through UBC.”

He traces his career path back to the exciting labs and classes held in “tarpaper shacks” where he eagerly soaked up new knowledge offered by his physics, chemistry, microbiology and soil science profs.

This set the stage for his PhD studies in agronomy, the science of growing crops. Arscott traveled the world for many years working on OSU research projects in India, Brazil and Uganda. Arscott says he frequently drew on his early fundamentals, especially in developing countries where agricultural operations crossed many disciplines.

“It really helped me that I had a such a broad general knowledge when I left, including topics like dairy science, agricultural economics and agricultural engineering.”

For example, his UBC dairy course came in handy shortly after he completed his PhD and was working in Honduras for a banana company that also kept a herd of dairy cows.

The dairy manager had trouble getting a successful read on his Babcock test, a process that measures the amount of butterfat in the milk. Day after day, the test failed until Arscott stepped in and solved the problem.

“I had underlined in my UBC notes how temperature was the key factor for the test,” he remembers with a chuckle. “Boy, were they surprised that this soil scientist knew something about dairy cows.”

But most gratifying, says Arscott, was creating positive change. “It was exciting because you could see the advances in agricultural sciences coming together with developments that included no-till practices and carbon sequestration.”

Half a century later, LFS continues to innovate, says Dean Murray Isman, a professor of entomology and toxicology.

“As a research intensive university, with our location and diverse population, we have a phenomenal geographic and political platform to do outstanding work at UBC.”

He observes that in practical terms LFS has had to evolve since its primary mandate at UBC’s founding was to provide agricultural training. “At that time, about 25 per cent of B.C.’s population was involved in agriculture. Now, it’s less than five per cent.”

Of more than 1,100 students enrolled at LFS, well over 80 per cent are urban dwellers. As a result, says Isman, “value-added” programs now focus on food safety, preservation and processing, as well as the importance of nutrition to human health.

He adds, “We’ve departed from the traditional discipline structure that used to exist, for example with plant science or animal science. We’ve got dynamic young faculty who are keen to use this integrative approach. Students say they really value the way materials on pressing social issues are taught.”

Other countries have taken notice of UBC’s leadership. Recently, the Chinese government has expressed interest in partnering with LFS to develop training programs in food safety and security.

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