Food System Challenges and Opportunities: the Bay Area Example, pt. 1

Apr 6, 2020Perspectives, Shared Prosperity, Strategy

This is the first installment in a series discussing the challenges and opportunities unique to the California Bay Area’s Food System.

by Michaela Crunkleton Wilson

If the beginning of 2020 has been any indication — what with the driest February on record,[1] and a life-altering global health pandemic — factors we are sometimes unable to control (or even predict) can have indiscriminate repercussions on all aspects of the Bay Area. This includes in sectors where challenges are already acutely felt every day: sectors like food production and the admirable workers who fuel it.

Spanning 6,900 square miles of Northern California, the Bay is much more than Silicon Valley’s tech scene or San Francisco’s tourist attractions. Inclusive of extensive farmland communities, agriculture plays a key role in our economy and landscapes. California produces more than 400 agricultural commodities, with dairy being the top commodity, and grapes a close second (any takers for a glass of wine from Napa Valley while you read?). California has also been responsible for growing two-thirds of all the fruits and nuts in the country and over one-third of the country’s vegetables. It leads all other states for cash farm receipts, and accounts for over 13 percent of the nation’s total agricultural value.[2]

Broadly characterized by mild winters and dry summers, yet harboring remarkable micro climates, much of this impressive production originates from the Bay Area and surrounding counties. It’s hard to believe as one drives past the ultramodern tech campuses and pseudo-utopian landscape architectures of downtown suburbs such as Palo Alto, that there is a stark contrast of farms that exist within as close as a ten-mile radius of those very places.

Yet stark contrasts, also known as inequity, are commonplace in the Bay Area, and the farmer community sits on the unlucky side of that spectrum. Lack of power and opportunity for farmers, including inequities in farm ownership, are commonplace. The most illustrative example is the current housing crisis that has led to an explosion of homelessness and relocation in the Bay Area and is painfully impacting the farmer community: An hour south of San Jose in Salinas — a city where agriculture makes up 20% of the local economy and has long been known as “The Salad Bowl of the World” — an entire farming family might crowd into one bedroom, splitting rent with other families who might take over the living room, or even the garage.[3] In addition, many farm workers face the dark irony of living in food deserts — or an area that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food. They are unable to eat a variety of foods they produce and lack the means to relocate to food-plentiful neighborhoods.

Even for smallholder farmers who own their operations, and therefore would presumably have more power and opportunity, the punchline is the same: it’s nearly impossible to make a sustainable, living wage. For them, it’s a struggle to access distribution networks that can accommodate smaller quantities of produce, it’s hard to transport food to market given they are too busy farming, and for the many smallholders experimenting with sustainable production models and regenerative agriculture, it’s hard to find economically viable solutions that still pay their workers, and the bills.

Given the harsh realities tied to this type of work, it should not come as a surprise that there is a dangerous lack of young farmers entering the sector. And who would want to when the prospect of automation threatens to take away an already insecure occupation? Farmers average 59 years of age,[4] and one need only ponder this reality for a moment before empathizing with the urgency associated with finding their successors.

Shall we pile on top of this the threats associated with a global pandemic? In a time where demand for an uninterrupted supply of food is so high, how can we ensure there is adequate labor to meet the demand, and that this labor receives dignified care and compensation in return? Supply of labor low as it is, the global pandemic has threatened to restrict immigration policies such as the H-2A program — a program that allows employers to bring foreign nationals to the U.S. as temporary agriculture workers — which accounts for up to 60% of labor needs.[5] Coupled with pre-existing health conditions prevalent among many farmers in the aging population, no paid sick leave, and no health insurance, farmers are risking their lives for the sake of their livelihoods, and to ensure supply can meet demand.[6]

And while demand for food is high, the way consumers demand food has changed rapidly, making it hard for farmers to adapt. Take just one example: Small local farms are critical partners to Stanford University’s dining hall food sourcing portfolio, and with campus closed for an unforeseeable future, those revenue streams are lost.[7] How many and how badly are farmers impacted knowing that all restaurants and schools are closed, in addition to interrupted global supply chains and access points?

And this is more or less the half of it. The inequitable and precarious realities of those who produce our food are only additive to the challenges associated with how food is produced.

Due to tempting short-term economic gains and a controversial national policy landscape, current agricultural practices incentivize exploitative industrial production with a focus on the current cash crop trinity: grains, dairy, and meat. Such practices inadvertently and irreparably deplete lands and accelerate climate issues given the lack of soil and crop biodiversity needed for the long-term viability of environmental resources.[8]

By some estimates, agriculture currently generates about 25% of annual greenhouse gas emissions.[9] Twenty-five per cent! It’s a vicious cycle in which threats derived from climate change such as fire (Remember all the wildfires in California last year?), drought, sea level rise, and rain and ocean acidification are accelerated by agricultural practices, which create adverse effects that justify the need to promote short-term agricultural gains, which accelerate and exacerbate climate-related challenges, and so on. Therefore, while regenerative agriculture has the possibility to reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity, there are few incentives apart from values-driven ones to employ such practices.

While the novel coronavirus threatens the already precarious livelihoods of food production workers, climate change bolsters the temporalities of food production processes. That said, it’s not all gloom and doom. Silicon Valley is famously known as the hub of innovations, and research, innovation, and exploration around agriculture and food systems abound. Additionally, a relatively open policy landscape allows for atypical innovation and bipartisan action, thereby offering potential to serve the needs of different communities in novel ways. As such, the greatest opportunity lies in providing peoples and communities involved in production access to the resources and networks able to help them innovate mechanisms, knowledge bases, and policies for adaptation — and not just climate adaptation.

To the challenges associated with who is producing food: One Bay Area farmer dreams of a future of worker-owned cooperatives in which farmers own, work, and live on the same land to mitigate issues of complex power imbalances and the visible housing crisis. Visions also exist of smallholder farmers with improved access to distribution networks, able to forego traditional broadline distributors that deal in high volume, accessing instead food hubs that offer competitive prices for smaller volumes. And because push has come to shove, there are undoubtedly visions for how to ensure the health and safety of farm workers in the face of a global pandemic (Access to health care as a starter, how about?).

To the challenges associated with how food is produced: The Bay Area is already known as a pioneer in normalizing climate-related food system innovations such as laboratory-grown or plant-based ‘meat’ and urban or carbon farming. In addition to this, there are countless visions of a Bay Area where farmers and fishermen desire and are empowered to operate their land and seas for environmental sustainability and climate mitigation, in addition to profit. Farmers and fishermen would reap benefits from practices that reinforce ecosystem services rather than exploiting the ecosystem with unnecessary inputs and overfishing. In doing so, they would mitigate climate threats through lowered emissions and increased carbon sequestration.

To maintain momentum on existing innovations, achieve current visions, and dream up new ones, networks need to be strategically shaped. There is an expectation that technological innovations such as block-chain or AI will instantaneously solve all our food production problems, but without networks and partnerships — things that take time and patience — many will be left behind and unintended consequences will only create new problems. Farmers, economists, agronomists, climate scientists, food conglomerates, policy makers, health care workers, Bay Area Ag-tech startups, each have knowledge to offer and each could use knowledge from the other. Community networks allow actors to understand an entire system, making more informed decisions and allowing the appropriate actors to be the decisionmakers in order to effectively address both foreseeable and unforeseeable risks.

The biggest challenge in the Bay Area’s food production system is the precarity of farmer livelihoods, which are only exacerbated by unstable and dynamic factors, such as the global pandemic and climate threats. But, while the realities of inequality perpetuate the cycles of poverty and threaten food production’s future viability, there is an equal amount of hope that our unique policy landscape and rich diversity of actors can recreate the food system for the better.

[1] Pierre-Louis, Kendra and Nadja Popovich, “California Had Its Driest February on Record. Here’s How Bad It Was.” The New York Times, Mar. 2020.

[2] “California Agricultural Production Statistics: 2018 Crop Year — Top 10 Commodities for California Agriculture,” California Department of Food and Agriculture.

[3] Cimini, Kate. “California farmworkers struggle with high cost of housing,” The Counter, Feb. 2020.

[4] Mitric, Julia. “As farmers age, they face the challenge of finding successor to take over,”, May 2019.

[5] Corbett, Jessica. ”As Trump Limits Guest Workers From Mexico Amid Coronavirus, Farmers Warn of Labor and Food Shortages,” Common Dreams, March 2020.

[6] Fu, Jessica, “Pre-existing conditions, no sick leave and health insurance put farm workers at increased coronavirus risk,” The Counter, March 2020.

[7] ”R&DE launches Farm Accelerator,” Sustainable Stanford, September 2017.

[8] “Why Regenerative Agriculture?” Regeneration International, 2019.

[9] Hersher, Rebecca and Allison Aubrey, “To Slow Global Warming, U.N. Warns Agriculture Must Change,” NPR, Aug 2019.0 Likes