A California Farm Bill for Our Future

Assemblymember Anna Caballero (Salinas), Chairs of the Assembly Ag Committee, has introduced AB 2166, entitled the California Farm Bill. A stunning bill, it marks the first introduction of an omnibus bill (one that contains multiple provisions) for agriculture. It promotes agricultural technology to meet 21st century challenges related to labor shortages, workforce development, global warming and resource conservation. ROC is working with the author’s office to ensure the bill serves all farms and truly reflects environmental goals. There are some issues with the bill described in this thoughtful piece from Paul Muller of Fully Belly Farm and Ryan Peterson of UC Berkeley.

A California Farm Bill for Our Future
Paul Muller and Ryan Peterson

For the first time in its history, California may create its own farm bill, AB-2166. If passed, it would be unique in the nation and appropriate for our trend-setting state. With the deeply flawed federal farm bill unlikely to improve in the Trump era, a state bill is good news. Unfortunately, the bill lacks two critical elements, agroecology and nutrition, which would guide development of a food and farming system that meets the critical challenges of this century. There are many committed advocates of health and resilience willing to support an amended bill.

AB-2166 recognizes the key issues of resource depletion and agrochemical use, labor shortages, regulatory conflicts, and a need for greater research and extension funding. The bill provides farmers incentives to adopt input efficiency technologies and positive labor practices. It creates agricultural technology career pathways, increases regulatory cohesion and ease of compliance, and improves broadband access for rural people. Finally, the bill provides research funding to hire much-needed University of California extension agents who work with farmers. While laudable, this set of initiatives is insufficient.

In California, the nation’s largest producer of fruits and vegetables, our precious soils and water are steadily degraded. They require much better conservation and protection. Federal immigration policy has restricted farm labor. In recent seasons, growers have plowed produce back into the earth and fallowed land for want of workers. In such a climate, AB-2166 is a welcome opportunity.

Two of the most pressing crises we face today are climate change and chronic disease, both of which have direct links to agriculture. The EPA reports that agriculture is among the top three sources of global greenhouse gas emissions. They also estimate that 18% of the country’s premature deaths are diet-related. Federal farm policies have been shown to encourage over production, driving many farmers to apply more chemicals on crops in an attempt to increase yields, lower costs and remain profitable. These low cost crops become ingredients for highly processed food and beverage that fuel the diabetes epidemic. The negative impacts can be mitigated with better policy.

California’s Farm Bill should unite agriculture, environment, and public health. This can be done. Agroecology, the application of the science of ecology to agriculture, has become recognized as an approach that addresses the weaknesses of industrial agriculture. Agroecology harnesses nature’s intrinsic synergies to maintain soil fertility and promote resistance to pests, diseases, and weeds. Agroecology lowers dependence on chemicals and fossil fuels while greatly enhancing the underappreciated ability of soil to capture carbon. A conservative estimate by the renowned soil scientist, Dr. Rattan Lal, reveals that well-managed soil can draw down harmful carbon in the atmosphere by tens of billions of tons in the next 10 years. Farmers can become part of the solution to global warming. But agroecological solutions require reorienting research and public policy to help farmers maintain the bottom line to meet society’s broader goals.

Agroecology depends on highly skilled farmers and farmworkers with more advanced ecological and technical knowledge and skills. This means enhanced career opportunities in rural communities, improving job quality and productivity at the same time. This is the visionary, positive outcome a California Farm Bill must create.

The proposed bill would be more broadly supported if the research and technologies to be pursued were more explicit. For example, increased investments in the University of California’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, UC Davis Ag Sustainability Institute and the Small Farm Program would be appropriate targets for enhanced funding. The University could holistically support agricultural informatics, agroecology and local food systems to ensure all scales of farm and ranch are equitably served. Moreover, with emerging Blockchain technology it is conceivable that California agriculture could collect and present information about the nutritional quality, the farmer, and agricultural practices associated with each product placed on a store shelf. California’s farms and ranches would be radically transparent giving them an advantage in a world market where more and more eaters are seeking to know details about what they consume

AB-2166 is not yet the Farm Bill we need, but it could be. With California’s singular natural, human and technical resources, we should not be shy about protecting, enhancing and marketing them. And we should not be shy about striving to achieve a food system that promotes the health and wellbeing of eaters, farmworkers and farm owners alike. With a few key changes the bill’s authors could expand the base of advocates who will support this much-needed legislative commitment to California’s food and farm future.

Paul Muller is a co-owner and operator of Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley. Ryan Peterson is graduate student at UC Berkeley specializing in sustainable agriculture and urban food systems.

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