I study environmental governance through the lens of agricultural and food systems, with a specific focus on the role of science and technology in shaping policy and practice. My work is motivated by concern for ecological resilience, social justice, and human health—put simply, how can people better work together to provide good food more sustainably and equitably?
Primary Research: Food Safety and Sustainability
Large-scale outbreaks of pathogens such as E. coli or Salmonella are increasingly spread through fresh vegetables, fruits, and nuts. The deadly incident linked to Arizona-grown romaine lettuce earlier this year was the most recent reminder of the danger posed by these otherwise healthy foods. Neither industry nor government has sat idle as this food safety crisis unfolds, however. Rather, they have launched a revolutionary wave of public-private co-regulatory initiatives in an attempt to control food safety risk from farm to fork. The resulting regulatory patchwork has placed unprecedented pressure on producers—especially farmers and field workers—to do everything in their power to put food safety first. In practice, however, food safety reform meets with substantial ecological and cultural friction on the ground.
My doctoral dissertation followed the case of California leafy greens supply chains to trace the web of market, legal, scientific, technological, and cultural forces that shape how experts craft food safety policy and how farmers implement those policies in the field. I conducted extensive direct observation and farmer interviews throughout the Central Coast and Imperial Valley, attended food safety trainings as a participant observer, and gathered key regulatory and industry documents; three undergraduate RAs aided me in collecting primary documents from online industry news, blogs, and media. By triangulating these different bodies of evidence, I discovered that a fundamental tension arises between safety and sustainability due to a myopic focus on driving the risk of microbial contamination toward an always out-of-reach “zero”. From illuminating the near-unbearable discipline imposed on agrifood workers by “food safety culture” proselytizers to the implicit “war on nature” waged against any environmental source of pathogenic contamination, my research challenges the assumption that safety is best achieved by pursuing perfect control over the complex social and ecological matrix of agrifood systems. The book project I am developing, Sowing danger: Germs, farm fields, and the imaginary of control, explains in depth the development of the US food safety regime as it pertains to fresh produce.
I am expanding this research as a postdoctoral scholar funded by the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture. Although food safety pressures may impact farm viability, sustainability, and resilience, the current prevalence and costs of on-farm food safety practices are largely unknown. I ask: How and why do food safety practices differ among farmers? How much time and money do these practices cost, and how do they impact farmers’ sustainability goals? To address these questions, I have visited nearly 40 produce farms across four California counties to ask farmers directly about their experiences implementing food safety protocols. Based on this fieldwork, I have developed an online survey instrument to be delivered to 4,000 California farmers. Initial results indicate that food safety constitutes a rapidly evolving risk regulation regime for produce agriculture that (1) overrides and heavily constrains farm conservation strategies through legal, cultural, epistemic, and market forces and (2) strongly discourages agroecological, economic, and cultural diversification on farms).
Diversified Farming Systems
I began my long-term collaboration with the Center for Diversified Farming Systems (CDFS) when I partnered with an ecology postdoctoral fellow in my department to co-author a Coupled Natural-Human Systems grant proposal for NSF. We successfully published an article in Bioscience based on our transdisciplinary model, and our collaboration catalyzed CDFS into pursuing further joint projects. The working group subsequently secured a $500,000 grant from USDA to examine the role of wild birds on food safety and pest control outcomes for strawberry growers; I am analyzing regulations governing bird management and contributing to the farmer survey. I also currently co-organize the CDFS working group for the 2018-2019 year. Recently, as a member of a CDFS delegation, I visited Capitol Hill in Washington, DC to share and promote diversified farming systems research. We presented at the Agricultural Research Congressional Exhibition & Reception and met with the staff of five California congresspersons representing the Central Valley and Central Coast to advocate for more federal funding devoted to research on diversified and sustainable agriculture.
Politics of Agricultural Mechanization
With Prof. Alastair Iles in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management (ESPM) at UC Berkeley, I am analyzing the history of mechanical harvesting technologies in California agriculture from 1945-1980 to better critique contemporary trajectories to “replace” human labor with machines. I recruited three undergraduate researchers to aid us in the archives: together, we collected over 1,300 historical primary documents from industry newsletters, government and cooperative extension reports, national media, and local newspapers. One of our students also won a McNair fellowship through the US Department of Education to study the impacts of agricultural mechanization on Central Valley farm workers in her home county. Our initial findings suggest that the promised benefits associated with mechanization often fail to materialize due to deeply unequal relations of power between those who design, and those who experience, mechanization.
Food Safety’s Impacts on Access and Exclusion
With UC cooperative extension specialists Christy Getz and Jennifer Sowerwine I am researching how food safety reform exacerbates inequity among specialty crop producers. We published our first article on the damaging moral economy of food safety culture in Agriculture and Human Values, and are finalizing a follow-up article for submission to the Journal of Rural Studies on the layering of barriers—including by farm size, diversification, race, markets served, and immigrant status—that exacerbate the vulnerabilities of local primary producers.
“Farmers and Foodies”: Alternative Food Movements and the Urban-Rural “Divide”
With Prof. Kathryn De Master, also in ESPM, I am researching how the politics of urban and rural identity affect participation and inclusion in US alternative food movements, in a project provisionally titled “Farmers and Foodies.” I recruited two undergraduate RAs, who took a central role in collecting and analyzing cultural artifacts—blog posts, tweets, conference/ symposium invitations, media articles—of alternative food movement discourse. Initial findings show a troubling tendency toward omissions and stereotypes that obscure the highly heterogeneous and vibrant diversity of rural identities, even among self-labeled progressive thought-leaders.
- Ansell, Chris, and Patrick Baur. (in press). Explaining Trends in Risk Governance: How Problem Definitions Underpin Risk Regimes. Risk, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy. DOI: 10.1002/rhc3.12153.
- Baur, Patrick, Christy Getz, and Jennifer Sowerwine. 2017. “Contradictions, Consequences and the Human Toll of Food Safety Culture.” Agriculture and Human Values. 34(3): 713–728. DOI: 10.1007/s10460-017-9772-1.
- Baur, Patrick, Laura Driscoll, Sasha Gennet, and Daniel Karp. 2016. “Inconsistent food safety pressures complicate environmental conservation for California produce growers.” California Agriculture 70(3):142-151. DOI: 10.3733/ca.2016a0006.
- Karp*, Daniel S., Patrick Baur*, Edward R. Atwill, Kathryn De Master, Sasha Gennet, Alastair Iles, Joanna L. Nelson, Amber R. Sciligo, and Claire Kremen. 2015. “The Unintended Ecological and Social Impacts of Food Safety Regulations in California’s Central Coast Region.” BioScience 65(12): 1173–83. doi:10.1093/biosci/biv152. *Authors contributed equally to this work.
- Cropper, M., Y. Jiang, A. Alberini, P. Baur. 2010. “Getting Cars Off the Road: The Cost-Effectiveness of an Episodic Pollution Control Program.” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 15904.
Honors and Awards
- USDA – National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Postdoctoral Fellowship – 2017-2019
- Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (DDRIG) – National Science Foundation: Science, Technology, and Society Program – 2014-2016
- GRFP Fellow – National Science Foundation – 2012-2015
- UC Berkeley Graduate Division Summer Grant – UC Berkeley Graduate Division – 2011 & 2012
- James A. Buchanan Scholarship – UC Berkeley – 2010
Popular Media Appearances
- Mak, A. (May 03, 2018). Slate. Why Has It Taken This Long to Figure Out What’s Wrong with Our Lettuce?
- Swerdloff, A. (January 19 2017). Vice News: MUNCHIES. Trump’s Labor Secretary Could Be a Disaster for Restaurant Workers.
- Swerdloff, A. (September 17 2016). Vice News: MUNCHIES. We Asked Food Policy Experts What They Thought of Trump’s Plan to Dissolve the FDA.