Investing in an Equitable and Climate Resilient Food Future in California
Janet McGarry, CUESA Volunteer
April 16, 2021
As we honor our second Earth Day during the pandemic, investing in a healthy world—both people and planet—has never felt more urgent. Agriculture uses half of the world’s habitable land, and farmers and ranchers play a vital role in the health of our communities and the environment.
California legislators and food and farm organizations are working together to ensure that equity and climate resilience are at the center of our food system’s recovery from the pandemic. In March, Assemblymember Robert Rivas introduced AB 125, The Equitable Economic Recovery, Healthy Food Access, Climate Resilient Farms, and Worker Protection Bond Act, which will appear on the 2022 ballot.
Responding to the Pandemic, Preparing for Climate Change
AB 125, also known as the Food & Farm Resilience Bond Act, will invest more than $3 billion over five years to accelerate California’s economic recovery, improve the state’s climate change readiness, support socially disadvantaged farmers, protect essential farmworkers, and increase healthy food access for all Californians.
The pandemic has revealed debilitating vulnerabilities in the industrial food system, as well as the essential role regional food systems play in community food security. As food supply chains broke down during the pandemic, farmers lost income and crops rotted in fields. In California alone, 2 million more people became food insecure. Food and farmworkers were deemed essential yet forced to work under dangerous conditions, suffering some of the highest rates of COVID.
In a year of racial reckoning, it has also become resoundingly clear that California’s food system must become more equitable. Longstanding discrimination against farmers of color persists in many forms, as demonstrated during the pandemic: in 2020, the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program provided 97 percent of its agricultural aid to white farmers. Biden’s American Rescue Plan of 2021 attempts to address past injustice by directing nearly half of the farmers relief to socially disadvantaged farmers.
Beyond the pandemic, California’s record-breaking 2020 wildfire season and looming drought have brought to light the need to prepare for disasters to come. In the future, climate change will create difficult growing conditions for farmers and ranchers and exacerbate food insecurity. California is the largest agricultural producer in the United States, so planning for climate resilience is imperative.
Regenerative Agriculture for More Resilient Farms
Climate change has already impacted agricultural productivity and will intensify challenges for California’s farms in the future. Scientists predict that climate change will result in higher temperatures, increased heat waves, variable precipitation with more frequent droughts and floods, reduced snowpack impacting water supplies, and increased pressures from pests.
Agriculture also contributes to climate change; food systems are responsible for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and in California, agriculture’s contribution to the state’s emissions is approximately 8 percent. Methane emissions from livestock, disruption of soil through plowing, use of fossil-fuel based fertilizers, and energy usage all emit greenhouse gases.
AB 125 provides $1.135 billion in assistance to help farmers and ranchers both adapt to and mitigate their impact on climate change. Funding is provided to improve soil health, increase compost production, reduce food waste, improve manure management to reduce methane emissions, use and protect water efficiently, and protect groundwater resources. Improving soil produces multiple benefits as healthy soil produces nutritious crops, absorbs and retains water, reduces erosion and run-off and sequesters carbon.
Researchers predict that warmer temperatures will increase pest populations that damage crops. The bond would provide funding for ecological pest management to reduce use of toxic pesticides dangerous to ecosystems and public health. California’s average rate of pesticide use is already more than 4.5 times the national average. Nine of the top ten pesticides used on California’s labor-intensive crops pose acute health hazards to farmworkers.
Help for Socially Disadvantaged and Beginning Farmers
Socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, including African Americans, Native Indians, Alaskan Natives, Hispanics, Asian Americans, and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, make up approximately 20 percent of the state’s farmers and farm more than 4 million acres. These groups also face the greatest barriers to funding and resources. Farmers of color have historically and systematically been discriminated against in terms of access to land and resources. Farmers who do not speak English as a first language may not have access to information about regulations, programs, grants, and technical assistance.
AB 125 provides funding for technical assistance to socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers and ranchers as well as tribes, and training for beginning farmers and ranchers and agricultural workers. Beginning farmers with less than 10 years of experience make up 27 percent of the state’s farmers. Many of these are young people who will need to replace retiring farmers, since the average age of California farmers is 62.1 years.
AB 125 also provides grants for improving land access and tenure among socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers or ranchers. Regenerative agricultural management practices can require long-term investments that farmers are unable or reluctant to make on land they don’t own. Due to expensive property prices in California, many socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers have difficulty purchasing land or entering into stable, long-term arrangements for leased land.
During the past year, farmworkers have endured especially hazardous working conditions because of COVID as well as smoky air from catastrophic wildfires. However, U.S. farmworkers—90 percent of whom are immigrants mostly from Mexico and Central America—have struggled for decades due to denial of basic protections, resulting in poor working and living conditions, limited access to healthcare, and low wages.
Climate change will exacerbate already difficult working conditions, with a daunting list of health implications for workers. With warmer temperatures, farmworkers are more likely to experience heat stress and stroke, an alarming prospect since farmworkers are already 20 times more likely to die from heat stroke than other civilian workers. If they lack access to potable water to stay hydrated, they are at greater risk for kidney disease. Heat and increased carbon dioxide make allergens worse, exacerbate asthma, and increase insect-borne diseases. Warmer temperatures stimulate the growth of weeds, which means farms may increase herbicide use, posing serious health hazards for workers. Drought and higher temperatures also increase wildfires, which mean exposure to toxic smoke.
AB 125 provides $637 million in funding to protect the health and well-being of California’s farmworkers. The bill includes a provision to provide personal protection equipment to workers for emergencies like wildfires or disease outbreaks, and grants to develop and improve housing, provide safe, reliable drinking water, promote public health, and disseminate information about public health dangers to farmworkers.
Strengthening Regional Food Systems & Food Access
Climate change poses many threats to public health, particularly to populations vulnerable to heat such as children and seniors, so ensuring equitable access to healthy food is critical. The supply and price of food are likely to be impacted by climate change, making access to nutritious food more precarious for populations with low incomes. AB 125 provides $750 million to combat hunger for an estimated 6.4 million food-insecure Californians and improve food access through programs like CalFresh.
Consolidation in the food industry poses challenges to communities in terms of food access, as well as farmers who are too small to supply large grocery chains and need greater access to markets. Smaller, regional grocery stores have closed leaving many people, particularly in rural areas, with few venues to purchase local, nutritious food.
The bond allocates $600 million to strengthening regional food economies by enhancing infrastructure, distribution, and processing. As the pandemic has shown, regional food networks, food hubs, and farmers markets have been nimble and quick to adapt in times of crisis, and they will be vital to our recovery and preparing for a more resilient food future for all.
Learn more and take action to support the Food & Farm Resilience Bond Act at voteforyourfood.org.