Thursday, September 5, 2019

Julie Guthman's "Wilted"

Julie Guthman is Professor of Social Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her books include Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California and Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism.

Guthman applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Wilted: Pathogens, Chemicals, and the Fragile Future of the Strawberry Industry, and reported the following:
As luck would have it, on page 99 of my book you find a photograph and some summary language of the preceding pages. The main paragraph you read states a key paradox of the use of mitigation measures for chemical fumigation of agricultural fields: that they exist to enable chemical use not to reduce it. The next paragraph, which only begins on this page, summarizes several arguments about the weakness of U.S. agro-chemical regulation. Here we read that it has allowed easy substitutions (if a particular chemical is restricted another potentially as toxic takes it place), that it exists more to manage these chemicals than to eliminate them, that it has largely disregarded populations with little recourse to contest chemical use violations, and that toxicity assessments neglect cumulative and interactive exposures. The photo helps illustrate some of these points, as it shows an agricultural field with tarps, designed to keep chemical fumigants in the ground and not expose those nearby, ripped from the wind.

If you opened my book on page 99, you would learn about one aspect of what the book is about – restrictions on fumigation. And you would see that the book isn’t light reading, but some sort of scholarly analysis. But you wouldn’t know what fumigation is and what it is for, and that these restrictions threaten some industry as well as enable it. And you certainly wouldn’t know that the book is primarily about the many converging crises facing the California strawberry industry, only one of which is restrictions on fumigation. So the test works in terms of signaling something about the book, but gives you no context. I would still take that as a “pass” of the page 99 test.

Wilted is written by a geographer (me) with an abiding scholarly interest in the political economy of California agriculture and the contradictory pressures of supplying so much of the country’s fresh fruits and vegetables while doing so in less toxic and more land-sustaining ways. In Wilted, I focus on the fate of the strawberry industry, which supplies 88% of US strawberries, most of which are grown within a few miles of the Pacific Ocean, competing with suburbanites for land. The industry’s earlier success come from innovations in plant breeding, soil fumigation, irrigation, and more, which together have improved upon the natural advantages of the sandy soil and climate of the California coast to produce nearly year round harvests. Growers have enjoyed exceptional profits and consumers have enjoyed the affordability of a fruit that kids love to eat. Today, however, many of the industry’s earlier advantages have morphed into threats, including the tighter restrictions on soil fumigants discussed on page 99. Chemical fumigants have long allowed growers to manage a number of soil-borne diseases and pests and plant year after year on the same blocks of land. Making things even more difficult, these restrictions have converged with several other threats discussed elsewhere in the book. Together, these have made the future of the industry highly uncertain – and thus also the future availability of affordable strawberries.
Learn more about Wilted at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue