William Clark, Harvard Professor, on Building Trust Between California Farmers and Consumers
By Courtney Steward, Assistant Editor
Social and conventional media are sharing widespread and varied opinions about California farmers and farming across the Central Valley and beyond, using soundbites in place of fact-based dialogue.
At a recent workshop called “Food for a Healthy World: Monitoring Progress Towards Food Security,” sponsored by the UC Davis World Food Center and the UC Agricultural Issues Center, William Clark, Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, at first appeared to dodge giving his opinion. “It would be dumb beyond belief for me to have opinions about farmers in California,” explained Clark, “except I enjoy what they produce.”
The goal for the group of campus and visiting experts who attended the workshop was to reach agreement on the major factors that must be considered to sustainably feed the world’s population. “The reason I’m here,” he said, “is because I work on sustainable development issues broadly, and much of what is going on here in California in the farming sector as well as in the energy sector are some of the most fascinating and useful experiments anywhere—in grappling with these issues. And I come out fairly frequently to UC Davis because I find it a wonderful point of contact with the farming community here. I’ve borrowed some UC Davis students, and I learn a lot when I visit.”
Clark explained, “I think California is a state that obviously thinks hard about how it can be a productive, vibrant economy, while taking care of the environment and of the people,” evidenced by great creativity and ingenuity among California farmers and researchers. “My colleague, Tom Tomich, director of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis recently co-authored one of the first peer-reviewed articles* to emanate from the California Nitrogen Assessment (CNA), an ongoing project at UC Davis.”
Assessment research indicates that while there are many pathways through which nitrogen can enter the environment, inorganic fertilizer use is responsible for the largest fraction of new nitrogen introduced in California annually. Currently, over 600,000 tons of nitrogen fertilizer are sold in the state each year.
Tomich maintains that better nitrogen use information is indispensable for the collaborative development of effective solutions to increase nitrogen use efficiency and save farmers money. The article describes both how nitrogen flows in crop production, but also how farmers can limit the flows that create problems in the environment. Also included are recommendations on how data could be better compiled to improve understanding of statewide trends in fertilizer use.
Clark claimed, “That’s the best nitrogen study that’s been done anywhere in the world in terms of showing how farmers are working and could be working to capture the benefits of fertilizer without offsite damages to the environment.”
Regarding these offsite flows, Clark emphasized, “I’ve almost never met a farmer who does not care deeply about the land, or the fisher about the health of the fishery or of the sea. And I think sometimes the debates that between the conservation and farm communities go completely nuts on this,” Clark explained. “I mean, you start with somebody who is making their living—has chosen a life—on the land. That’s where you start.”
“That said, all of us end up sometimes doing stuff that has some consequences we didn’t intend,” stated Clark. “I look to the science community to help all of us, including farmers, see some of the downsides of some of the practices that we do that are invisible. So, perhaps science discovers this chemical we thought was safe turns out not to be safe. Or the way we are turning over our crops has impacts on biodiversity that we didn’t know about.”
“But again,” Clark continued, “it’s the responsibility of my community, the science community, to bring those invisible but measurable discoveries into light in a conversation with farmers to reach a joint understanding of why one might want to use less of these applications and how one could use less of them while still turning out an attractive crop.”
Clark said it’s been his experience that most growers listen and try new approaches.
Clark concluded that trust between farmers, consumers, retailers, and health advocates is an all-time low. “I think food is one of the most complicated personal issues there is. If I were trying to build trust in an arena, there’s none harder, except maybe nuclear energy, than food issues. I think we all know that we have had less dialog and more soundbite exchange, and I don’t think any side is blameless.”
“My pitch here,” Clark summarized, “is simply I don’t see how we can move forward without starting meaningful dialogues that aren’t soundbites.” Clarke wants to inspire people to ask themselves, “What am I worried about?” instead of throwing blurbs into the middle of a on-air radio conversation. He elaborated, “Whether I’m a consumer advocate, a farmer, or a retailer, ‘What am I worried about? What do I think you guys are doing that I wish you weren’t doing?’ We aren’t brain dead; we should be able to work together, as long as we can talk instead of yell.”
*Rosenstock T, Liptzin D, Six J, Tomich T. 2013. Nitrogen fertilizer use in California: Assessing the data, trends and a way forward. Cal Ag 67(1):68-79. DOI: 10.3733/ca.E.v067n01p68.