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When farmers are pulled in too many directions: comparing institutional drivers of food safety and environmental sustainability in California agriculture

Abstract

Aspirations to farm ‘better’ may fall short in practice due to constraints outside of farmers’ control. Yet farmers face proliferating pressures to adopt practices that align with various societal visions of better agriculture. What happens when the accumulation of external pressures overwhelms farm management capacity? Or, worse, when different visions of better agriculture pull farmers toward conflicting management paradigms? This article addresses these questions by comparing the institutional manifestations of two distinct societal obligations placed on California fruit and vegetable farmers: to practice sustainable agriculture and to ensure food safety. Drawing on the concept of constrained choice, I define and utilize a framework for comparison comprising five types of institutions that shape farm management decisions: rules and standards, market and supply chain forces, legal liability, social networks and norms, and scientific knowledge and available technologies. Several insights emerge. One, farmers are expected to meet multiple societal obligations concurrently; when facing a “right-versus-right” choice, farmers are likely to favor the more feasible course within structural constraints. Second, many institutions are designed to pursue narrow or siloed objectives; policy interventions that aim to shift farming practice should thus anticipate and address potential conflicts among institutions with diverging aspirations. Third, farms operating at different scales may face distinct institutional drivers in some cases, but not others, due to differential preferences for universal versus place-specific policies. These insights suggest that policy interventions should engage not just farmers, but also the intersecting institutions that drive or constrain their farm management choices. As my framework demonstrates, complementing the concept of constrained choice with insights from institutional theory can more precisely reveal the dimensions and mechanisms that bound farmer agency and shape farm management paradigms. Improved understanding of these structures, I suggest, may lead to novel opportunities to transform agriculture through institutional designs that empower, rather than constrain, farmer choice.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. An illustrative example is provided by Liu et al.’s (2018) review on adoption of Best Management Practices. Out of 121 peer reviewed papers, the authors identified only 7 that addressed “macro factors”, including just 2 that directly evaluated the “roles of policies, markets, business, or agencies,” and concluded that such factors are “rarely investigated.”.

  2. On the types of ethical problems that may occur in agriculture, see James (2003).

  3. The literature on the role of standards—and the various systems through which compliance with standards is monitored and approved—in shaping food systems and value chains is both deeper and more wide-ranging than can be fully addressed here. For the purposes of this framework, I focus on standards through a regulatory lens. However, it should be noted that standards may also operate at normative and cultural-cognitive levels, inasmuch as they “reflect much more fundamental social/technical relations that are essential to the establishment and regulation of social and ethical behavior in capitalist markets” (Busch 2000). See also Busch (2020), Hatanaka and Busch (2008), Hatanaka et al. (2012), and Verbruggen and Havinga (2017).

Abbreviations

CDC:

US Centers for Disease Control

CDFA:

California Department of Food and Agriculture

FDA:

US Food and Drug Administration

FSMA:

US Food Safety Modernization Act

LGMA:

Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement

USDA:

US Department of Agriculture

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Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Jennie Durant, Lisa Kelley, Amber Sciligo, Daniel Suarez, Michael Polson, Alastair Iles, Kathryn De Master, and my colleagues in Nancy Peluso’s Land Lab for invaluable feedback, suggestions, and advice during the many stages and versions of this manuscript.

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Baur, P. When farmers are pulled in too many directions: comparing institutional drivers of food safety and environmental sustainability in California agriculture. Agric Hum Values 37, 1175–1194 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-020-10123-8

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Keywords

  • California
  • Institutions
  • Constrained choice
  • Farm management
  • Food safety
  • Sustainability