GCSC Presents: Seminar Speaker Dr. Julie Guthman

By Liz Ivkovich, Sustainability Office.

The GCSC Seminar Series will present Dr. Julie Guthman, Professor of Social Sciences in the Program in Community Studies at the University of California Santa Cruz. She gives her lecture “Pathogens, Plant Breeding, Chemicals, Land, and Workers in the Making and Unmaking of California’s Strawberry Industry” on Oct. 18, 4:00 p.m. in FASB 295.

Workers harvesting strawberrys in Salinas, CA.

Strawberry workers in Salinas, California. Photo by Holgerhubbs via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Today in California, the world’s leading strawberry producer, the iconic fruit wields a $3.4 billion economic impact. This dominance has flooded grocery stores with cheap strawberries. Now the future of the California strawberry industry is uncertain. Faced with a series of interconnected challenges, California growers could soon be forced out of the strawberry business, precipitating a potential spike in berry price.

On Tuesday, Oct. 18, Geographer Dr. Julie Guthman of the University of California Santa Cruz will describe how four factors in the making of California’s strawberry industry may be its undoing. These four factors: coastal land, plant breeding, soil fumigation, and labor shortages, “are particularly threatening because they’re interlocking – they build on each other,” states Guthman.

Strawberry partially covered with a brown mound of mold.

Botrytis cinerea (fruit rot) on strawberry. Photo by Rasbak via Wikimedia Commons, CC by-SA 3.0.

There is a high environmental and social cost for conventional ways of growing these vulnerable plants. To deter the aggressive pests that plague strawberry fields, farmers have relied on intensive soil fumigation with methyl bromide. Methyl bromide is an ozone-depleting neurotoxin that carries a high human toll, borne primarily by farmworkers and neighboring children. This chemical will be fully phased out of the strawberry industry by the end of 2016. Growers are now grasping for a practical and effective replacement that can keep their berries alive.

Organic alternatives to methyl bromide are being explored by many farmers. Concurrently, researchers are exploring how and why farmers make decisions about using pesticides. Most of this research highlights farmer characteristics like temperament and comfort with risk. Guthman’s work broadens the frame to include the political and economic systems that constrain what growers can actually decide to do, regardless of their personality. One major factor here is land.

Guthman explains, “Land in California is so fraught. You have commercial real estate pressure, so that drives land values up, and land is valued on the basis of the expectation that you’ll continue to grow high value agriculture. One of the ways that growers used to deal with [disease-causing] pathogens is they just moved to new ground. But when you have very tight land markets and a real land shortage, they don’t have the opportunity to move to new ground. It creates a huge obstacle to grow in more integrative and less-intensive ways.”

Land issues compounded with increased pesticide regulation are having enormous effects on California’s strawberry producers. The impacts of these threats will not be equally distributed. Guthman explains, “The growers who are most likely to be squeezed out of the strawberry industry without some policy intervention are first-generation Latino growers who are already deeply in debt.”

161018-guthman-announcement_abstract-4-1-1There are many questions about the future of the California strawberry, including who will benefit and or be harmed in that future. As the industry steels itself to face these challenges, Guthman concludes, “unless we get really serious about zoning and the cost of land and other land related issues, it’s going to be very hard to have the strawberry industry survive and produce a cheap fruit.”

Attend the lecture on Tuesday, Oct. 18 where Guthman will add the issues of strawberry breeding and labor shortages into this brief analysis on pesticide use and land. For those who have previously attended a GCSC Seminar Series, note the location change to FASB 295.

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