I study environmental sustainability governance through the lens of agricultural and food systems, focusing 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?
Food Safety, Agricultural Sustainability, and Equity
I developed my dissertation and postdoctoral research questions and projects through close collaboration with agricultural stakeholders across California and with the interdisciplinary Center for Diversified Farming Systems. My dissertation evaluated the social justice and ecological effects of food safety standards intended to control the spread of human pathogens such as E. coli via fresh produce. US farmers are faced with a high-stakes patchwork of market, regulatory, and liability pressures to grow food more safely, but I found that these pressures also discourage sustainable farming practices (published in Bioscience) and impose unequal burdens on farmers and farm workers (published in Agriculture and Human Values), particularly those operating small-scale and diversified operations.
My USDA-funded postdoctoral research built upon these findings to examine how and why food safety practices, costs, and sustainability impacts differ among the wide diversity of farmers across California. To address these questions, I visited 40 produce farms across four California counties to ask farmers directly about their experiences implementing food safety protocols. I found that food safety constitutes an evolving risk regulation regime (Ansell and Baur 2018) for produce agriculture that constrains on-farm environmental conservation strategies and discourages ecological, economic, and cultural diversification on farms (published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems). As agroecological diversification strategies are crucial for adapting agriculture to increasingly severe climatic and socioeconomic disruptions, my conclusions highlight a critical need to reconcile safety with sustainability and equity in food production (in review at Agriculture & Human Values), to which I encouraged other scholars to respond by co-editing a special research topic in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.
I am also working on a critical analysis of the political-economic and epistemic institutions that shape how regulators and the agricultural industry understand and respond to systemic foodborne pathogen risks to identify structural barriers to and opportunities for enhancing adaptive resilience to microbial dangers in farming systems.
Diversified Farming Systems
I began my long-term collaboration with the Center for Diversified Farming Systems (CDFS) by co-authoring 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, including the NSF CNH grant on which I collaborated as a postdoctoral scholar. In that capacity, I leveraged my farmer interview and survey expertise to support the social science component of this coupled natural-human systems project. The interdisciplinary team aims to model the ecological, economic, and social effects of competing policy and market pressures on farmers’ decisions to promote or suppress biological diversity on their farms. Based on this collaboration, I also co-led a framing paper and a second special research topic on the linkages between social-ecological diversification and enhanced adaptive capacity to global human-environmental challenges in agriculture.
Mechanization and Automation in Agriculture
A developing research project investigates the role that technological innovation plays in both catalyzing and suppressing sustainability transitions in food systems. This plan elaborates on a long-term collaboration with Alastair Iles at UC Berkeley, in which we are analyzing the history of mechanical harvesting technologies in California agriculture from 1945-1985 to better evaluate contemporary trajectories to “replace” human labor with machines. We collected over 1,300 historical primary documents from industry newsletters, government and cooperative extension reports, national media, and local newspapers. 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.
Based on this deep historical insight into farm mechanization, I am developing a contemporary case study of agricultural automation focused on the confluence of traditional food and farming techniques with high-technology approaches pioneered by big data and machine learning innovators. The agricultural technology field is booming with influxes of new data-intensive robotic, genetic, and remote sensing tools—drones, advanced optics, precision GPS, full genome sequencing, gene editing—that promise to allow farmers to manage more acreage with greater precision and less labor than ever before. However, the history of technological innovation in agriculture demonstrates the myriad deleterious ripple effects of ungoverned technological change, such as farm worker displacement, farm consolidation, degradation of crop genetic diversity, and a host of downstream environmental damages. The pressing question is, can this latest revolution in ag tech be harnessed and governed not just for productivity enhancement, but also for equity, health, and sustainability across food systems?
As an initial step, I organized a workshop on November 4 of this year on “Just and Equitable Technology in Agriculture” with the Berkeley Food Institute, which brought scholars together in conversation with sustainable farming and farm worker advocates. We began a process to (1) identify the contemporary social justice problems for farmers, farm workers, and rural communities related to ungoverned technological innovation in agriculture, and (2) develop a set of principles that should underpin a new common platform for equitable and just technological innovation in agriculture. In future iterations of this emerging collaborative network, we will elaborate and finalize a platform that is publicly available and free for organizations, researchers, and individuals to use in guiding research, policy, and advocacy efforts.