Los Banos Talk
On April 19, 2021 the City of Los Banos hosted a community workshop focused on the City General Plan update, in which information was shared with the public regarding the city's plans for expansion and growth, while addressing concerns and mitigating risks associated with such. Due to a relatively new state law SB 1000, cities must now report and show census data collected depicting the environmental impacts on health in order to address "Environmental Justice". Environmental Justice is the idea that people deserve to live in a clean and healthy environment and that all people regardless of income, race, gender, or age deserve to be able to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and live in an environment that is generally clean and largely free from pollution and contamination. SB1000 essentially takes into account things such as incidents of asthma, exposure to pesticides, ground water threats, etc. and gives regions scores. The City then in turn most show you how your city compares to others within the state and is required to address the deficiencies in its general plan.
Taken from the slide show presentation, below is the slide indicating how Los Banos compares to other cities in the state on environmental justice. A red bar indicates that the city is worse than 95% of the state or conversely in the bottom 5%, in other words extremely poor. Orange indicates that the city is worse than approximately 75-90% of cities within the state or conversely in the bottom 10-25%. Yellow is moderate or in the middle, while green is good or in the upper 5-10% of cities compared to other cities within the state. You will notice that Los Banos is ranked poorly in numerous categories.
According to the data it would appear that Los Banos has one of the highest rates of Cardiovascular disease in the entire state, as well as asthma. So what might be the cause and what can be done about it? To really get some answers we would need to conduct a study, but by looking at this study we can make a few assumptions backed by other studies done in the past. Los Banos ranks very poorly in regards to Ozone, Particulate Matter, Pesticides, and Groundwater Threats. These on first glance look like pretty relatable indicators that could possibly explain the phenomenon. That still however leaves us with the question of what is the source of this particulate matter, pesticides, ozone, and groundwater contamination. Well, American publications seem to be rather hesitant to blame agriculture and pesticide use but here are two sources, here and here, that indicate that agricultural workers are twice as likely to develop asthma, severe allergies, and cardiovascular disease. Living in close proximity to industrial agriculture also puts you at higher risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease, asthma, severe allergies, and a host of other problems. Not to mention nitrogen contamination in the water leads to the growth of blue algae which is caused by a process caused eutrophication.
Here is a video by the USGS that shows how agricultural water contamination has greatly affected parts of the Mississippi. Elected officials will not admit it but the drains in Dos Palos get clogged up because of this. They like to blame the drought, but really the issue is that the drought reduced the amount of water which raised the concentration of nitrogen, which made conditions more favorable for algae. Its like saying the problem is that there isn't enough water to keep diluting the pollution down to a manageable level. Over pumping ground water in order to dilute the ppm (parts per million) nitrogen & phosphate levels is not sustainable and causes its own issues.
So what can be done if anything to mitigate these issues? After all we need to grow food and agriculture is such a strong part of the Los Banos economy. First thing is we need to objectively look at the situation and trust science enough to study these issues. I grew up in a coal mining town as a kid in Virginia and recall what it was like dealing with coal. You were encouraged to shut your mouth and not complain about enviromental hazards because they brought money to the city which otherwise had little, it put food on the table for many, and so in order to continue justifying it, politicians and advocates continued to create talking points and alternative narratives to explain the high rates of cancer, asthma, birth defects, and other issues. Anyone who spoke up about these concerns was villified and seen as anti-business and anti-job. It takes money to run a campaign and coal companies had the most, so needless to say most politicians refused to acknowledge anything negative about the coal mining. Similarly I see the same social dynamics at play here in Los Banos. No politician wants to be branded as being anti-farming, so they don't acknowledge any of the enviromental hazards or problems created by it. The problem with this thinking is that the issue isn't a zero sum game, we could have our cake and eat it too so to speak. For example, local farmers could switch to "No-Till" farming which would reduce the amount of particulates, carbon, and dust released into the air. Alternatives to pesticides are becoming more viable, but even still there are pesticides that we continue to use that have been banned in Europe, we could tighten down restrictions on pesticides or make county or city ordinances that ban certain pesticides that have been linked to health issues. I am not an expert on agricultural sciences, but I do know that technology and research in the field have come a long way, and we have UC Merced and Fresno State University near us, and have access to an abundance of knowledge and agricultural scientists who would probably love to make our farming practices more sustainable and safer.
The idea isn't to end agriculture in Los Banos, but actually quite the opposite, it's to save it. As the population continues to grow and more people continue to move in with a college education, the old approach of ignore the issues and make excuses will start to fail. Farmers could adapt their practices in order to mitigate these issues or eventually be likely pushed out by the growing number of people who don't work in agriculture but want to breath clean air and drink clean water. While everyone agrees we need food to live, the "not in my backyard" mentality will grow and people will realize yes food needs to be grown, but does it need to happen next to my house? Many cities have banned agriculture in and around the cities across America as a result, but it doesn't have to be that way. Farming tourism for instance is something that is currently in vogue, and many cities are realizing that local organic fruit and vegetable markets/local farmers markets, and organic farms that are designed to be tourable and attract people are not only safer, but bring in money in other ways as well. Here is an article that explains how farming and tourism were combined within and around the city in order to reduce environmental hazards to locals, and keep farming a part of the culture and keep it profitable, increase business, and create higher paying jobs than it previously did.
In conclusion, its not a zero sum game. Other communities have figured out how to keep agriculture in the city while making it economically viable and safer for everyone, so why can't Los Banos? There is no war on agriculture, there is only a war on unsustainable and hazardous practices. The city is growing, times are changing, and if agriculture wants to continue to be a part of its future as I am sure most of us want, than it too needs to change with the times as well. Some will misconstrue this article as an attack on agriculture, because it dare mention known health hazards associated with it, but it is not. It is an attack on a mentality that hates change, that thinks problems go away when ignored, and politicians that care more about what a few farm owners think of them than the health and safety of the remaining 99% of the population. Enviromental justice is about ensuring we all can live in a safe and clean enviroment, and that individuals and businesses have to think about how their actions impact others around them. Any update to the General Plan that doesn't find solutions to mitigating the impact of agriculture on the local populations health isn't actually addressing enviromental justice, it's just paying lip service to it.
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