California can lead the nation in moving toward a diversified, plant-based food system

By Gene Baur

Activist and author Gene Baur co-founded Farm Sanctuary, America’s first farm animal sanctuary and advocacy organization.

California is famous for Hollywood and the Silicon Valley, but it also deserves recognition as the nation’s largest agricultural state. It produces over 400 commodities and generates nearly twice as much revenue as Iowa, America’s second largest farm state. California grows more than one third of our country’s vegetables, two thirds of its fruits and nuts, and 40% of the organic production. It is uniquely positioned to set a positive example and help reform our unhealthy and destructive food system.

Agriculture is a principal contributor to our planet’s most significant ecological threats, including the loss of biodiversity and the climate crisis, and it undermines human health as diet-related illnesses cost billions of dollars in preventable health care costs every year. Scientists, including those at the Lancet Commission, are warning that “a global transformation of the food system is urgently needed,” and that central to this is “increasing consumption of plant-based foods and substantially reducing consumption of animal-sourced foods.”

Producing meat, dairy and eggs demands inordinate resources, taking up 10 times more land in the United States than plant-based agriculture. Farms have preferential access to scarce resources as well as exemptions from labor, animal welfare, environmental and other laws that permit them to act irresponsibly.
Agribusiness has drained rivers and aquifers so that the Colorado River no longer reaches the ocean, and Tulare Lake, once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, is dry.

Conscientious citizens and businesses are installing low-flow devices and taking other steps to conserve water, and agriculture, which uses 80% of California’s developed water supply, must do better. Instead of irrigating crops like alfalfa to feed farm animals, for example, the state’s limited water supply should be used to feed people.

With growing awareness and concerns about industrial animal agriculture, it is encouraging to see innovative California businesses developing plant-based alternatives to meat, dairy and eggs, but there are also misguided efforts underway to greenwash unsustainable practices.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in California on biodigesters to convert factory farm excrement into energy, but these ill-advised expenditures promote and perpetuate an inherently inefficient system.

We can eliminate the need to remediate methane and other greenhouse gasses from excessive animal waste in the first place by shifting to plant-based agriculture, which can also help to sequester carbon in the soil.

Farming communities across the United States have suffered as family farms have closed and agricultural production has been concentrated into fewer larger corporations, infamous for polluting the environment and mistreating workers and animals.
While consolidation has also occurred in California, the average farm size is smaller than the national average, which along with the state’s prominence in plant-based farming, places California in a prime position to catalyze a vital shift away from factory farming and toward a more diversified, community-centered, plant-based food system.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed failures of industrial agriculture, including a lack of resilience and the disproportionate threats suffered by disenfranchised citizens whether they are sickened working in slaughterhouses or from lacking access to wholesome food. Citizens are responding to these concerns and to food system disruptions by supporting local farms, community gardens, farmers markets and by growing their own food. These approaches should be encouraged and incentivized by government policies. The victory gardens provided 40% or our nation’s produce during WWII, and a grassroots network of community-based farms can provide healthy food today, as well as security and meaningful economic opportunities, especially in areas where it’s needed most.

We have opportunities to create a healthier and more equitable food system, but this requires that we shift institutional and public support away from industrial animal agriculture and toward a more diversified plant-based system instead.

Last year, the U.S. government allocated $40 billion in subsidies to agriculture, and tragically, most of it went to support factory farming, with the largest businesses receiving the most money. When you consider the real costs, our cheap food is actually very expensive. A 2018 report found an astounding 73% of dairy industry income came from government programs.

Instead of supporting a dysfunctional marketplace and businesses that abuse people, animals, and the environment, public resources should serve the common good.

We all benefit from access to nourishing food and sustainable agricultural practices that help preserve our precious earth and our humanity. We are all better off in a sanctuary instead of in a slaughterhouse.

Gene Baur is president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, America’s first farm animal sanctuary and advocacy organization.