The tiny farmworker outcropping of Kettleman City is located in California’s Central Valley, a 400-mile-long swath of some of the world’s most productive agricultural land. The town of about 1,500 is bordered on three sides by crops, including almond trees and tomato plants, that extend for 20 miles. Populated mostly by Mexican immigrants and lacking sidewalks and gutters, Kettleman City is a poor place that usually doesn’t draw attention. Earlier this year, however, the town made national headlines after residents reported that at least eleven local babies had recently been born with severe defects, including Down syndrome, missing brain parts, and cleft lips and palates. One was stillborn. Three died in infancy.
The birth defect cluster could be a statistical quirk, but it is much more likely that environmental factors are to blame. Many residents believe a toxic-waste dump three and a half miles from town has poisoned the air, soil, or water. Other possible culprits include air pollutants emitted by the 400 diesel trucks that deliver waste to the dump each day or the pesticides to which the town’s farmworkers are routinely exposed. The pervasive uncertainty about what caused the defects has kept some women in the town from considering pregnancy.
The crisis in Kettleman City is just one example of the consequences that the Central Valley faces as industrial farming swallows the region’s resources and contaminates its environment. Once called “the richest agricultural region in the history of the world,” the valley, which is home to the nation’s top four counties in agricultural sales, produces more food than any single U.S. state. It grows some 250 crops, including virtually all of the nation’s almonds, olives, pistachios, and walnuts, and it is the country’s leading producer of cotton, lettuce, tomatoes, and dozens of other commodities. But it is also where California leaves its detritus: Most of the state’s feed lots, manure lagoons, and hazardous-waste dumps are located there. This willful pollution, compounded by destructive farming practices and climate change, has led to water scarcity, soil contamination, and, in some cases, diminishing crop yields.
What’s more, many of the valley’s residents, particularly the poorest ones, like those in Kettleman City, experience un usually high rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and pesticide poisoning. Both air and water quality in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, the region’s southern half, are considered among the worst of any place in the country; more than one in five children there has asthma. And the health problems aren’t just regional: Outbreaks of diseases in other parts of the country have been traced back to food from the Central Valley.
Indeed, the valley is slipping toward a crisis that threatens to leave a ragged hole in the heart of California’s economy and in the nation’s agricultural infrastructure. While scientists are racing to respond to the problems industrial farms have created by rethinking the way crops are cultivated, many growers are just seeking ways to maintain their profits in the short term on increasingly limited resources.
The harsh reality is that there may not be any long-term solutions to the Central Valley’s problems—at least, not ones that would protect the region’s environment and residents while also insuring that it continues to generate $28 billion annually in agricultural products. Above all, the valley is likely a harbinger for the bleak future of big farming in the United States, as the destructive consequences of its disregard for the environment and human health come to light.
Environmental depredation in the Central Valley is nothing new. The region was once predominantly swamp, seasonal wetland, and prairie, but, in the second half of the nineteenth century, growers and their political allies began turning it into an agricultural engine. They diverted rivers, built canals and levees, and drained the largest inland body of water west of the Great Lakes, turning its exposed bed into cotton fields. The valley’s three watersheds were mechanically merged into two, reversing water flows; even gravity was negotiable.
Vast farms now dominate the region. They’ve skewed water and land-use laws to their benefit and employ copious amounts of pesticides, finite groundwater, and irrigation water conveyed over long distances, all of which have increased the farms’ productivity but heightened the valley’s vulnerability to environmental ruin.
Water is the region’s most pressing problem. In the early ’80s, thousands of fish and waterfowl in a wildlife refuge in the northwestern San Joaquin died or were born with gaping deformities. The cause was identified as sele nium in agricultural drainwater that had been pumped into the refuge to make up for freshwater that was being diverted to crops. In the valley’s Westlands Water District, which includes land in Fresno and Kings counties, 100,000 of slightly more than 600,000 farm acres have been retired because of contamination by selenium, salt, and other minerals carried by irrigated water. And a University of California-Davis study from 2005 concluded that there is a two-in-three chance the poorly built levees on which the San Joaquin depends for water will experience a disastrous collapse by 2050.
Crops are also being squeezed out of increasingly spent ecosystems. Colony collapse disorder (CCD)—the sudden disappearance of bees that pollinate crops, probably caused in part by pesticide exposure and the low nutritional benefit bees derive from monoculture crops—reduced the valley’s production of almonds, which typically accounts for 80 percent of the world’s supply, by 16 percent last year. And climate change is exacerbating the ravages of big agriculture: A July 2009 study predicted that rising temperatures could eliminate the valley’s peach, apricot, plum, cherry, walnut, and apple orchards by the end of the century.
On a human level, farms depend on minority and immigrant laborers who receive rock-bottom compensation and are exposed to serious health risks in the fields and their communities. A 2005 Congressional Research Service report found that the San Joaquin is even poorer than Appalachia, and cancer clusters pop up there every few years. Pesticide drifts, during which toxic chemicals are blown from fields to adjacent towns, happen more or less annually. The victims suffer vomiting, nausea, coughing, sore throats, irritated eyes, and assorted long-term damage. In 1999, a couple dozen vomiting and coughing residents of the town of Earlimart were rounded up by firemen, taken to a middle school football field, ordered to strip, and sprayed with a fire hose—which did nothing to alleviate their ailments.
Alarmingly, health problems sometimes extend much further: In December 2006, at least 81 people in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin suffered E. coli poisoning after eating lettuce at three Taco John’s restaurants—lettuce that was eventually traced to a San Joaquin farm that relied on water contaminated by manure from a dairy next door. In 1985, about 1,300 people as far away as Canada and Hawaii fell ill after eating watermelons tainted by pesticides.
All of this portends a dark future for the Central Valley. To ward off disaster, many farmers are trying to switch to crops that require less water, and researchers are hurrying to develop genetically modified crops that can cope with higher temperatures, reduced water supplies, and diseases currently combated with pesticides. They are hampered, however, by cutbacks in government research grants. Moreover, while geneticists are learning how to make plants disease-resistant, their fixes would probably only work for a few years, until pathogens find ways around them. In Kettleman City, residents hope that publicity about the birth defect cluster will force the nearby waste dump to abandon expansion plans, and prospects have improved for the construction of a new water-treatment plant that would make it safe to drink from local taps. Acting on an order from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, state officials are also investigating the cluster’s cause.
But they doubt they can pinpoint it. And, even if they do and then go on to eliminate it, officials probably won’t take the next critical steps: acknowledging the toxic conditions of the greater Central Valley and fighting the agricultural and economic forces that have created them. It’s more likely that the valley will continue to decline. A levee collapse could jump-start the valley’s ultimate disintegration, or it could decay gradually over many decades, as water supplies drop, crop diseases spread, and temperatures rise. Production of some commodities may diminish or end altogether. While other countries—starting with China—seek to make up the shortfall in agricultural products consumed by millions of people nationwide, the demand for farmworkers in the valley could drop, costing many people their jobs and worsening their already poor living conditions. Prices of many foods could jump nationwide, to the point that some foods might disappear from many Americans’ diets.
There’s a clear moral to the Central Valley’s tragic story, one that, across the country, industrial farms and the states that support them would be wise to heed: Engineered victories over nature are transient, and, the bigger the technological triumph, the greater the ripples of the eventual collapse.
Jacques Leslie is the author of Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and The Environment, which won the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award.