Repurposing Cropland in California: A Solution for Everyone?

March 28, 2023 | 3:58 pm
AgriSolar Clearinghouse/CC BY 2.0
Ángel S. Fernández-Bou
Senior Climate Scientist

I may be a romantic, but I firmly believe that we can reimagine agriculture, rural disadvantaged communities and the environment in a way that makes everyone happy. I love nature, and I see agriculture as part of nature, not as a foe. But agricultural practices, especially in California, must be updated to survive the future.

One powerful change that is growing momentum is strategic cropland repurposing. Doing cropland repurposing right can benefit many, including landowners. We just need to have everyone on the same page and be willing to collaborate to maximize the benefits for everyone, including (but not only) oneself.

Strategic land repurposing is the change in land use from an economic activity that produces negative side effects (such as harming people’s health and the environment) to new land uses that produce positive side effects. These side effects are what economists call “externalities,” and they are consequences of business activities that are not accounted for by the price of the product sold.

An example of a negative externality is the negative health impacts of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers in rural disadvantaged community residents: community residents pay with their health for the cheaper price of conventional food production. An example of a positive externality is the positive impact of agroecological farms on the health of farmworkers and rural residents and on the local ecosystem: clients pay more money for food whose production benefits everyone.

For several years I have studied the many potential benefits that repurposing cropland inside and around rural disadvantaged communities can have for all the involved stakeholders (landowners, communities, industry, the broader society, the environment, local economies). I have engaged with hundreds of stakeholders in rural California, agreeing often and disagreeing sometimes.

My conclusion based on community engagement and technical science is that promoting the right strategic land repurposing in multi-benefit projects in rural communities can bring positive side effects and decrease negative ones. This results in new socioeconomic development and socioenvironmental justice for rural disadvantaged communities, new investment opportunities for clean industry, and more sustainability for agriculture, while preserving or improving the income of local landowners and fostering environmental health for everyone.

Who benefits when cropland is retired?

While doing cropland repurposing right can benefit many (including landowners), the first step is cropland retirement, which is the most controversial.

Cropland retirement has direct negative effects on agricultural revenues and farmworker employment, with ripple effects in other sectors that depend on agriculture (such as transportation and agricultural services).

But cropland retirement also means a decrease in pesticide, synthetic fertilizers, and water use that can bring significant environmental and local public health benefits.

How do we weigh these scenarios and decide if cropland repurposing makes sense? We can estimate the positive socioeconomic benefits and the ripple effects of repurposing part of that cropland into clean industry and solar energy generation and storage, and we can discuss other potential benefits of creating management of aquifer recharge projects, green areas, and other benefits that are more difficult to monetize but are undoubtedly good for society. What historically has been more difficult is estimating the negative effects of maintaining agriculture’s status quo.

Reducing water use by repurposing cropland can have a range of positive side effects for the environment, public health, economy and communities in addition to lowering water demand. Source: Water, environment, and socioeconomic justice in California: A multi-benefit cropland repurposing framework.

Can we put a dollar amount on industrial agribusiness’s negative impact?

It is common sense that, if someone breaks something, it is fair they pay for it. When we talk about the environment, sometimes the problem is we don’t know the exact cost of what is “broken,” and the ones who break it can get away without paying for it. We have seen this play out for decades with polluters and fossil fuel companies that benefit individually from creating a problem that we all pay for.

Before I continue, I would like to make a clarification. When I talk about agriculture, I distinguish two clear groups of stakeholders: local farmers versus faceless extractive corporations involved in industrial agribusinesses (or even hedge funds from outside California).

Farmers are people who live on the land and who normally love the land they work, independently of their size.

Extractive industrial agribusinesses are not local farmers, they do not live on the land nor do they form part of local communities. They take the wealth produced in rural communities by rural residents and remove it from the local economy, leaving behind communities in economic disadvantage and with a range of negative public health, environmental, and social impacts.

Extractive industrial agribusinesses do not care if they use more pesticide or fertilizer than needed, because their families and friends do not live there. They know the burden they cause to the local communities and to California, but they put profits over people and the environment. Besides, farms are often in unincorporated areas which allows industrial agribusinesses to pay insufficient taxes to the nearby small rural communities they pollute.

Often, lack of enforcement results in negative impacts such as pesticides sprayed over people’s homes or the diversions of flooding water toward rural disadvantaged communities to avoid flooding corporate orchards (even if it leads to the evacuation of thousands of people or the destruction of small and medium farms).

In my opinion, legislators should side with people’s health and the environment before allowing these extractive (even destructive) practices that also affect negatively local farmers who do live in the land.

The first step to be able to make polluters pay for their pollution is to account for the cost of the harm they produce. While agribusinesses are not as bad as fossil fuel companies, the truth is that unsupervised industrialized agribusiness activities can cause multiple problems in rural communities and to the state’s water supply.

For example, decreasing the use of pesticides in a region by repurposing the cropland to other uses may decrease the overall conventional agriculture production by a certain amount, but that may save the population several times that amount in health and water expenses. While this benefit is common sense, it has not been accounted for yet.

Part of my work over the last four years includes calculating and estimating scientific data related to socioenvironmental impacts. Among those analyses, we calculated the revenue generated from agriculture inside 123 rural disadvantaged communities in California’s San Joaquin Valley, which was about $170 million per year (only a small part of it is profit). We also calculated that conventional agriculture inside those communities adds on an average year of about 19 million pounds of toxic nitrate from synthetic fertilizer to the aquifers inside these communities. Providing each resident in those communities with one gallon of clean water per day would cost $190 million.

Together, those facts suggest that the actual cost of producing conventional agriculture inside and around rural disadvantaged communities is not being paid by the food consumers, but by the residents of those rural communities. And this only accounts for some negative side effects to water. If we monetized the negative impacts on air quality or the lack of socioeconomic and environmental opportunities created by this feudal-like system, those numbers would be much more unfair.

Reimagining agriculture and cropland is essential to our future

Food production will not be enough to preserve agriculture as we know it today. We are already able to 3-D print meat! Strategic cropland repurposing is necessary to improve communities and the environment, and to preserve agriculture. It is very possible that the agricultural sector has to generate positive effects and be paid for it to be feasible. Those beneficial side effects can include creating habitat for wildlife and endangered species, improving air quality and water security for nearby communities, preserving and improving the landscape, and producing clean energy. Those externalities benefit everyone, and everyone should pay farmers for providing those services.

I may be a romantic, but I firmly believe that environmentalists and farmers should become best friends. They have more in common than not and should join efforts to achieve their shared goals together. Delivering water to the environment could be the same as delivering water to sustainable agriculture, if agriculture sustains a healthy ecosystem. Working together to reimagine new uses for existing cropland is one way of moving forward in a way that benefits everyone.