November 15, 2004
First major study of organic farming in California
By Jennifer McNulty
The first comprehensive study of organic agriculture in California
challenges the popular notion that organic farming is dominated
by small family-owned farms and shows how the industry's regulatory
structure has thwarted the very benefits that have generated
strong public support for organic agriculture.
Julie Guthman Photo:
"Organic farming is seen as an answer to the crisis in
our food system, but organic agriculture in California has evolved
in some peculiar ways that effectively limit the number of acres
that are in organic cultivation," said Julie Guthman, author
of the new book, Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic
Farming in California (Berkeley: University of California
In her analysis, Guthman, an assistant professor of community
studies at UCSC, also reconsiders roads not taken
to a more socially just and ecologically sustainable agriculture.
A strong proponent of many of the ideals associated with organic
agriculture, Guthman nevertheless believes the fastest-growing
segment of farming today warrants scrutiny. Many experts expect
as much as 20 percent of California cropland will be in organic
production by 2024.
Major misconceptions concern the "who and why" of
organic farming and the impact of industry regulation. Among
Contrary to the popular image of farmers who embraced
a "live gently on the land" philosophy, many growers
switched to higher-value organic commodities to increase earnings.
Rather than corporate takeovers, much of the growth of
organic agriculture has come from growers who made the switch
from conventional farming to organic, met with success, and
recruited other experienced conventional farmers to join them.
Many growers went organic out of fear that the pesticides
they relied on would be banned, while others were concerned
about their personal exposure to pesticides or the risks associated
with exposing others to pesticides.
"There were very compelling economic and regulatory reasons
for conventional growers to enter into organics," said
Guthman. "As they went organic, they brought along their
technical competence, their marketing relationships, and their
labor practices. As a result, organic farming in California
today looks a lot more like the agribusiness model than the
pastoral family-farm model most people think of. Todays
tight price competition affects all organic growers, even those
who would like to farm less intensively, she noted.
The second major force that shaped the organic industry--and
ultimately limited its reach, argues Guthman--was the movements
decision to self-regulate through the establishment of independent
organic standards and third-party certification programs to
verify those standards.
Like the leaders of many social movements of the 1960s, the
pioneers of organic agriculture had to decide whether to operate
within the system or not. "They chose to use the market
but not the state in developing organics regulatory structure,
said Guthman. In establishing regulations for their industry,
organic growers exhibited a certain self-interest and arbitrariness
that created some perverse incentives and outcomes, albeit usually
The focus on materials rather than processes--soil inputs
rather than cover cropping, for example--fostered an idea that
input substitution was good enough, allowing many growers to
be organic without fundamentally altering their growing practices.
Grower-designed and -enforced standards paved the way
for the organic industry's failure to address social-justice
aspects of sustainability, including farmworker wages and working
conditions, and hunger and food distribution issues.
Organic certification generates a price-premium that
creates an incentive to restrict entry because reducing competition
keeps the price-premium high.
"The paradox of incentive-based regulation is that it generates
a motive to limit participation, when the whole purpose is supposed
to encourage more sustainable production," said Guthman,
noting that despite the growth of organic farming, it still
accounts for only 1 percent of U.S. agricultural output.
Finally, Guthman paints an unromantic picture of agriculture
in California. Historically, small-scale family farms
have never been the norm in California, she said. Californias
agrarian tradition has been shaped by land values that reflect
and support a form of high-intensity, specialty-crop, year-round
farming unlike anything else in the United States, said Guthman,
who describes it as a "treadmill running on overdrive."
"Land values in California correlate to the value of crops
that are grown and the intensification of farming practices,
so farmers are under incredible pressure to get more crop value
per acre," said Guthman. "Because organic adds value,
it has the potential to further inflate land costs, which ironically
undermines the goal of growing in less-intensive ways.
Guthman's prescription for addressing the shortcomings of the
current system starts with "revisiting the roads less traveled,"
including banning pesticides, creating government subsidies
for sustainable farming, eliminating subsidies for conventional
agriculture, and revising immigration policies to support farmworkers.
"One percent of U.S. agricultural acreage is organic, compared
to nearly 30 percent in Australia," said Guthman. "We
have 2,000 organic farms in California, but Italy has 45,000.
There's been much more widespread transformation in different
political environments. We really have to ask ourselves how
successful our approach has been."
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