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Even in a Drought, California Farms Have a Future – but They’ll Need Control of the Food System to Succeed

Self-provisioning of resources promotes economic as well as ecological resilience.

(YES! illustration by Jennifer Luxton.)

Last month, for the first time in history, California enacted mandatory limits on how much water its residents can use. And yet, as a recent op-ed in The New York Times points out, the state is exporting 100 billion gallons of water a year in the form of cattle feed.

That’s right: cattle feed. California’s thirstiest crop isn’t almonds or broccoli or anything else you’ll find in the produce section, but alfalfa. If you eat a steak, there’s a good chance that cow’s diet included some alfalfa hay. But chances are slim that any of that feed came from California unless you get your beef from China, where most of California’s alfalfa ends up.

It’s outrageous to say the least. But it’s exactly what we should expect from a food system that is built not to be practical, but profitable.

The very dominance of California agriculture is an expression of the same logic. California supplies more than half of America’s fresh fruits and vegetables. Not only are nine of the top 10 counties by agricultural sales located there, but the top county, Fresno, produces more than 23 other states.

The United States is so dependent on California farms that we could literally face hunger if they failed. But even that frightening scenario would not necessarily force the system to change, as the history of famines from Ireland to Ethiopia shows. That’s because capitalist goods do not flow to where they’re most needed. Instead, they always flow to where they’re most profitable. The market doesn’t care if you’re starving; it only cares how much money you’ve got.

At the bottom of this senseless system is the matter of who gets to make the decisions. Most of the time, the power to choose what to produce, how to produce it, and where to sell it no longer lies with the farmers who work the land and often truly care about feeding people in their communities. Instead, according to sociologist Thomas Lyson’s book Civic Agriculture, more than half of California’s farmland had already come under the control of absentee owners by the year 2000.

These farms are in turn integrated into supply chains of corporate distributors, processors, and retailers controlled from the top down by elite boards of directors. To grasp exactly how undemocratic the system is, consider that in 2013, the 10 largest food companies in the U.S. made about 13 percent of the country’s total food sales in dollars, and that power over those companies rested in the hands of a mere 113 people who made up their boards of directors. (Editor’s note: These figures come from an original analysis of data from the website, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the companies’ own websites.)

The system is so entrenched that even policy solutions are limited. Big Ag’s pull in Sacramento recently derailed an effort to regulate groundwater pumping. And even if you could somehow loosen the industry’s grip on Congress enough to pass an export tariff or ban a water guzzler like alfalfa, you might have to contend with a challenge from China under WTO rules.

Supporting Agriculture’s “99%”

The enormity of our agricultural challenge is staggering to say the least. But fortunately, it is under just such circumstances that “checkerboard revolutionaries” are at their best. As I discussed in the first installment of this series, what defines these change-makers is their pioneering experimentation with local solutions to systemic problems.

In the case of the California food crisis, the work of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers is a true exemplar. Founded in 1978, the group has spent decades experimenting with and promoting locally rooted, ecologically and socially responsible approaches to growing and selling food. As its name suggests, CAFF centers its mission on the family-owned-and-operated farm. To borrow the Occupy slogan, these farmers are, so to speak, “the 99%” of the agricultural world. That is, that they run the vast majority of farms (actually around 90 percent in California), but control a disproportionately small fraction of farmland. Most of it is owned instead by one-percenter industry titans like Beverly Hills billionaire Stewart Resnick, whose agricultural holdings are “larger than four San Franciscos,” according to Mother Jones.

To aid family farmers, CAFF has spearheaded policy, educational, and research efforts to advance a sustainable agricultural technology known as agroecology. Basically, agroecologists see farms as part of the local ecosystem, and look for ways to use existing environmental assets to grow food efficiently. If caterpillars are eating all the chard, an agroecologist might encourage natural predators, for example, rather than dousing the fields in chemicals or turning to seeds with pesticides built in.

The technology thus benefits the environment and the farmer’s bottom line by minimizing what researchers refer to as “artificial growth factors” such as chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and genetically modified seeds. This so-called “self-provisioning” of resources promotes economic as well as ecological resilience by protecting farmers from outside supply shocks and reducing their dependence on big creditors and agribusiness. To top it off, other studies have shown that agroecological self-provisioning increases farmer income by cutting costs and boosting productivity.

Besides advancing chemical-free pest management and water management techniques like “dry-farming”—in which California growers produce wine grapes using little or no additional water—CAFF has also helped farmers tap into local markets with marketing campaigns like “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” and the establishment of farmers markets and other direct sales methods. Thanks to CAFF’s leadership, there are no shortage of squares on California’s checkerboard of alternative food models.

From Local Sustainability to Food Sovereignty

How might we bring the great solutions CAFF has pioneered into the mainstream? The first step is to appreciate that the problem is not fundamentally a crisis of the way we grow and distribute food; it’s a crisis of the economic system we call capitalism.

Like the fossil fuel industry and Wall Street style finance, the industrial food system is inextricably tied to the corporate capitalist economic model. It puts profit first, treats labor and nature as mere inputs to fuel endless growth, and centers control in the hands of the elite few at the expense of democracy. As with fuel and finance, we can’t make our food system sustainable without fundamentally transforming our whole economy and the politics around it.

Accordingly, advocates for local, sustainable food systems ultimately need to approach their work through a big-picture framework. As I hinted at earlier, the concept that perhaps best ties together the various strands of the local food struggle is food sovereignty. This notion simultaneously emphasizes the root of the problem—that capitalist corporations have taken control of our food system—and points the way to the solution—placing it back into the hands of ordinary farmers, farmworkers, and local communities.

We can clearly see the power of food sovereignty as a movement-building concept in the international sustainable farming coalition called La Via Campesina. This burgeoning movement was the first to popularize the concept of food sovereignty, and has wielded it to mobilize a culturally and economically diverse membership against the agenda of big agribusiness. While the interests of farm laborers, family farmers, and indigenous peasants can differ enormously, all have found common cause in the idea that ecologically and socially sustainable farming requires local democratic control.

The strategic value of such global unity is obvious. Just as capitalism and its commodity chains span borders, so too must the efforts to resist and build alternatives. Membership in La Via Campesina provides food revolutionaries with links to other squares on the international checkerboard of local solutions, and thus establishes channels for the flow of essential resources and ideas.

Food sovereignty also provides a great way to conceptualize the socio-economic benefits of agroecology. Not only does agroecology promote the independence of family farms by cutting down on the need to buy things like pesticides and seeds, it also democratizes knowledge by transforming farmers into active participants in the development of agricultural science. According to Keith Warner’s excellent study of a CAFF agroecology research program, successful agroecological research is impossible without participatory social-learning networks among farmers.

Yet empowering farmers is not enough. True food sovereignty means giving democratic control to all participants in our food system, including the farmworkers who have historically been the most marginalized. A food system that benefits local consumers and family farms but ignores the well-being of workers is not a sustainable one. This is why worker-empowerment efforts, like those the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have pioneered in Florida, must become a central part of the sustainable food movement.

Encouragingly, a number of advocacy groups based in the East of the United States, such as the National Family Farm Coalition and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, have already joined forces with La Via Campesina. But no such alignment has taken root on the West Coast so far.

Now is the crucial moment to remedy that and bring California farmers into a network that will magnify their efforts to strengthen democratic control and develop sustainable ways to farm in the state’s increasingly dry climate.

As the largest state economy in the U.S., California’s leadership can shift the nation. We’ve seen it on issues from limits on tailpipe emissions to energy efficiency standards. Now it’s time to see it on agriculture. And with organizations like CAFF putting food sovereignty front and center, that leadership could have the systemic thrust it needs to effect real change.

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