Making California America's Organic Farm

Alice Waters isn't the only one pushing the effort to convert California to wholly sustainable agriculture. If even the government agrees it's possible by 2030, what's the holdup? It's late February at Whole Foods in Berkeley, California, and a half pint of organic blueberries is selling for $5. I admire..

Alice Waters isn't the only one pushing the effort to convert California to wholly sustainable agriculture. If even the government agrees it's possible by 2030, what's the holdup?

It's late February at Whole Foods in Berkeley, California, and a half pint of organic blueberries is selling for $5. I admire nature's bounty; the access to fresh fruit is one reason I call California home. The blueberries don't, though. They hail from Chile. So do the nectarines. The blackberries, meanwhile, are from Mexico, and the bananas voyaged from Ecuador and Costa Rica.California produces more food than any other state. In fact, it's the fifth largest food producer in the entire world. But for all its agricultural prowess, California imports huge volumes of food. The state is the biggest importer of FDA-regulated commodities in the United States. Much of this is produce, sold in foodie Meccas such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.But this produce is laden with plenty of baggage. The blueberries didn't just wash up on our shores 6,000 miles from their South American home in a polystyrene box; it took oil to transport them here. Fossil fuels are involved in every stage of industrialized agriculture, from petrochemical fertilizers to machinery operations to sprawling food distribution and shipping networks. And for many years, this oil-drenched food seemed palatable: Oil was cheap and we became dependent on it to bring us cheap food. As global oil resources dry-up, the costs of imported food will rise.How California gets its food may soon change, though. With the growing awareness that the current practices are unsustainable, people are beginning to rally around the idea of creating a wholly sustainable agriculture in California by the year 2030. What this agricultural system will look like is outlined in a 20-point 12-point manifesto-created by a nonprofit called Roots of Change-that emphasizes local food, humane animal raising, and environmental protection. But accomplishing this goal requires that the public understand the hidden costs of industrialized food. The looming question is, how do they get the entire state up to speed?Roots of Change has been on the case for almost a decade. Founded in 1999 to oppose the growing industrialization of food, ROC is uniting various leaders and institutions who share the 2030 goal. They've partnered with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom on a project that has the potential to sustain that city, and, on the national level, are collecting signatures for a petition to ask that Congress add aggressive sustainability measures to the next farm bill.But according to ROC, the effects of a switch to sustainable agriculture would have impacts far beyond what Californians consume at the dinner table. Michael Dimock, ROC's president, explains that "in essence, sustainable farming is producing crops and livestock using methods that neither exploit the working people on the farms nor degrade resources like soil and water to a degree that prevents continuous food production."Indeed, true sustainability isn't just about food and soil. As Gail Feenstra, a food systems analyst for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program at the University of California, Davis, says: "A sustainable food system must be economically viable, environmentally sound, and socially just."Particularly when it comes to the human factor, Feenstra cautions against the marginalization of the working class-whether the "working class" refers to the laborers toiling in unsafe fields and slaughterhouses, or the inner-city families struggling to gain access to the same nutritional food enjoyed by the patrons of the typical farmers market.Bringing about this revolution in California's food system by 2030 is an audacious goal, but recently, the California Department of Food and Agriculture chose to adopt the same target to coordinate its AG Vision programs, which include progressive stewardship, water conservation, and renewable energy projects.
"You change the production of food overnight. It's about paying the real cost of food, it's about putting the money up front instead of having to pay for people's health care out back." -Alice Waters
Of course, these ideas aren't altogether new. The Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse-a temple to the locavore ethos-introduced sustainable eating to California (and the nation) in 1971, and the movement has reached something of a fever pitch in recent years. Alice Waters, chef of Chez Panisse-and, in many ways, the voice of the sustainable food movement as a whole-believes that creating a sustainable food system by 2030 is possible. For Waters, the key to realizing that goal would be a greater investment in food education. Creating a new generation of educated eaters could create a huge market for local foods."We need to educate the children from kindergarten," Waters says. "Twenty percent of the population is in school-we're talking about buying power.Waters also suggests bringing not only food education, but sustainable food itself, into schools. "Chez Panisse only feeds five hundred [people per day] and think of what we've done. The Berkeley school system alone feeds ten thousand [people per day]. You change farming overnight, the production of food overnight. It's about paying the real cost of food, it's about putting the money up front instead of having to pay for people's health care out back."Dimock concurs. "In the last fifty years we have created an expectation that food should be cheap. Our expectation of cheap food has harmed us because it has forced us to externalize the costs on labor, on the environment, and on our health. We have to realize that internalizing the true costs of food production are going to make for a healthier planet."The key, then, according to Dimock, Waters, and others, is education. "What the city has is money, markets, and policy power," says Dimock. "What the countryside has is stewardship over all the resources that the city needs to survive: water, food, land, and renewable energy production. The city and the country are totally interlinked, and the more each becomes conscious of the other, the more stability the entire civilization has."Steve Lyle, of the CDFA, also stresses the importance of educating the public about the system, "by connecting individuals to agriculture, [the food we eat] through school gardens, farmers markets, farm tours and county agricultural fairs." Through such a process, Lyle predicts a strong and viable future for California's agricultural model.In the 150 years since the advances of the industrial revolution were brought to America's farms, agriculture has become an enormous and enormously powerful business, contributing $130 billion to the economy in 2008. Thus far, this engine has maximized profits and cheap calories at the expense of health, food security, and our natural resources. Now, the time for cultivating our nation's health through sustainable farming seems to be gaining currency, even at the highest levels. The White House has now announced plans for its own vegetable garden.Waters finds this encouraging. For some time, she has been focused on the White House for its symbolic and legislative power to influence food. "I think what Barack and Michelle Obama say and do will be understood by everybody in this country," she says, "and they are beginning to say it, and they are beginning to do it, and it's a beautiful thing."So will California be sustainably farmed in 2030? Maybe. The single biggest hurdle to making California a sustainable agricultural system is a general lack of understanding of our food system. But that understanding is growing. Ultimately, such an emerging food system hinges upon a growing market of consumers that actually put their money where their mouths are. This doesn't have to be a painful process, but can provide a national reawakening to our Jeffersonian roots-after all, it was our third president who first and foremost saw us as a nation of farmers.Dimock thinks that now is the time for national investment in our collective food future. "Our culture decided a long time ago that there is room for public investment: We did it for watersheds, we did it for trains and highways, we've done it for education, and we need to do it in a better way for the food system. … We've already invested in cheap food, in cheap calorie production, now we just need to make an investment in healthy food and agriculture instead." It's an evolving process, but one that we can influence by eating seasonally; by thinking more about provenance before we consider the call of those winter blueberries.LEARN (Illustration: John DuBois)
Photo by Josh Couch on Unsplash

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