Climate Change, Farmworker Justice, and Pollination Loss in California’s Agriculture
She lost the farm she built from scratch. Twice. First from flood, then from drought. Now, the farm that feeds her surrounding community is bearing the full brunt of pollination loss. As an undocumented Latina small-scale farmer in central California, she has never qualified for loans, insurance, aid, or bailouts. Her story speaks to a broader narrative of how climate change is exacerbating existing labour injustices in an agricultural system pushed to the brink by failing ecosystem services.
As a PhD student researching pollinator ecology and conservation, I grapple with how my field of study intersects with the social impacts of climate change on agricultural communities. To learn more, I asked academics from a range of disciplines how declining pollinators are impacting California’s farmers and farmworkers.
A social-ecological problem
Declining pollination services disrupt California’s highly unstable system of agriculture. If three quarters of the world's food crops depend on animal pollination, the importance of pollination services is especially critical in California, renowned for its pollinator-dependent almonds and fruit trees. Bees and other pollinators provide $3,521 per hectare in pollination services to almonds and other pollinator dependent crops.
According to several bee biologists I talked with, climate change may be driving the decline of bees and other pollinators with extreme heatwaves and droughts disrupting bee life cycles, foraging patterns, and their ability to cope with pathogens, such as the Varroa mites that spread deadly viruses to honeybee colonies. Dr Charlie Nicholson, a postdoc at Lund University, summarised that ‘managed bees are overworked, and wild bees are under threat. That is the problem with pollination services right now.’
Yet who receives these benefits from pollinators reflects socioeconomic inequities and systemic racism. Dr Nicholson co-authored a recent paper in Nature Communications, demonstrating that lower income communities of colour disproportionally bear the burden in declining crop pollination services. These socio-economic impacts of pollination loss will grow as climate change worsens.
Like many other dimensions of climate change, the loss of pollinators is not just an ecological problem, but an issue of climate injustice – whereby those marginalised from the system that fueled climate change will disproportionately experience its impacts. Climate justice frameworks advocate for more equitable solutions to climate change that dismantle systems of colonial oppression, racial injustice, and labour inequality. From a climate justice perspective, issues of discrimination and unfair labour policy in California’s agriculture are intertwined with declining bee biodiversity. These stressors interact to disrupt relationships between people, bees, and land within a complex social-ecological system.
For instance, climate-driven declines in pollinator services further threaten yields for the forgotten and ignored small-scale farmers and workers who support California’s agricultural system. Geographer Natalia Pinzón Jimenez maps the emergency aid these essential labourers receive to adapt to the increasing scourge of wildfires.
Not only do farmworkers lack adequate information about where to go during a wildfire emergency, they are often not given N95 masks to protect them from the smoke. ‘It’s a legal requirement and yet vineyards are not providing them,’ clarified Pinzón Jimenez. She recalled receiving videos of farmers urgently harvesting fields in the middle of the night to save the crop, while walls of fire raged behind them. She added, ‘The truth is that they will risk their job if they don’t work in those conditions.’
A jumbled toolbox
Solutions to pollinator decline have focused on policy-strengthening, technology development, as well as grassroots education and mutual aid networks. California currently lacks a robust legal framework for protecting bees. Declining pollinators like the Crotch’s bumblebee are in the process of being listed as a California state endangered species.
A coalition of agrobusiness groups including Almond Alliance of California, the California Farm Bureau Federation, and the Western Grower’s Association have challenged the listing effort through a lawsuit against the state. They claim that providing legal protection to bees would interfere with current farming practices. However, pollinators provide essential services to agriculture. Listing has previously benefited endangered birds and mammals, so listing has the potential to highly benefit bees. Developing a more direct policy for insect conservation is a critical step toward addressing pollination loss in a changing climate.
These policies regarding pollination services have generally not been put in dialogue with policies regarding farmworker rights. Like much of Californian climate policy, state policies related to farmworkers are present, but weak. According to Dr Mark Cooper, ‘California has a history of incremental change for farmworkers’ rather than full-fledged environmental justice. Moreover, there is often a gap ‘between regulations and what happens on the ground.’ Current policy discussions treat pollinator loss and farm labour as separate issues. These policies need to better incorporate climate justice frameworks by treating agriculture as a complex socio-ecological system and acknowledging that climate change is affecting this system more rapidly than current policies can keep up with.
‘In an era of anti-science, it can be powerful to tell people, “look you are scientists too.”’
Technology offers another lens through which to address the social-ecological impacts of climate change on agroecosystems. Bobby Arlen, a remote sensing entrepreneur and consultant, works with academics and farmers in California to use drones to monitor crop health and agroecosystem functioning. He says that technology could be further used to monitor pollinator health as well as environmental conditions for farmworkers. Arlen believes that ‘remote sensing will affect monumental and positive change for monitoring agroecosystems under climate change.’
However, technological solutions alone are not a panacea – not least given the historically unequitable access to technologies for small-scale farmworker and farmer communities. Feminist scholar Donna Haraway critiques that overreliance on science and technology as providing an all-encompassing view can erase the positionality and motivations of the individual. Thus, an overreliance on standardised technologies could have the potential to erase the differences in farmer and farmworker lived experiences.
Grassroots education can offer another path forward. California-based ecologist Dr Gianalberto Losapio partners with a local organization in his Italian hometown, located in the Lombardy region, to share information about organic farming and pollinators with his community. ‘In an era of anti-science,’ Dr Losapio told me, ‘it can be powerful to tell participants in community science programs, “look you are scientists too.”’ He has experienced how such programs can benefit underserved farming communities in Lombardy.
Engaging in similar outreach in California, honeybee biologist Dr Elina Niño encourages people to purchase honey from local beekeepers and plant pollinator-friendly plants. Bee biologist Dr Jake Cecala further suggested that planting regionally native plants, eliminating the use of bee-harmful pesticides in gardens, and providing bee nesting habitat such as patches of bare soil could further help California’s bees. Such actions can bolster local pollinator populations, hopefully improving the quality of pollination services to nearby farms and increasing the benefits those services provide to farmers and farmworkers.
Educational interventions can also target broader climate vulnerabilities. In collaboration with grassroots organisers Alma Bowen and Ana Galvez, Natalia Pinzón Jimenez developed a series of bilingual educational trainings on wildfire preparedness for farmworkers. She works with Hispanic-identifying small-scale growers, often former farmworkers who started independent businesses, which they cannot cover from the impacts of climate change given the legal barriers to insurance. ‘They might lose their entire harvest because of flood, ash pollution or evacuation. They become doubly vulnerable because they are often undocumented and don’t speak English.’
In pursuit of climate justice
Historically, however, mainstream environmentalism has often focused on the impacts of climate change on charismatic animals – like bees – whilst overlooking the impacts on marginalised communities. Agricultural scientist Steve Haring worries that pesticide use may increase under climate change, further exacerbating its health impacts on agricultural communities in addition to pollinators.
‘The bees have buffers and we don’t?!’
Such concerns mirror those of air quality activist Teresa DeAnda. DeAnda expressed frustration that local officials gave more concern to protecting honeybees from pesticides than protecting the people living near the fields in her community in Earlmart, California. DeAnda shared, ‘I was at a meeting with the county agricultural commissioner, and we were looking at maps of the agricultural land. I saw these little red dots on the map and asked what they were. He said, “Those mark where the bees are, they’re the bee buffers.” I said, “The bees have buffers and we don’t?!”’ Incorporating climate justice principles into grassroots environmental education can amplify the perspectives and ideas of farmworkers and farmers in underserved, rural communities.
Mutual aid networks call for intersectional solutions that mitigate the effects of climate change on both people and pollinators. According to Dr Jonathan London, farmworkers themselves generate most of the forward-thinking and interdisciplinary solutions to climate threats, ranging from oil and gas phase-out, air and water quality improvement and methane-release abatement policies. Such climate policies would both directly improve farmworker health and wellbeing, while also ameliorating the environmental conditions for pollinators and the provision of pollination services to farmers and farmworkers.
In addressing both the impacts of climate change on people and pollinators as well as the root causes of these issues, mutual aid networks seek to change how agriculture works as a social-ecological system. Dr London added, ‘I think that sometimes farmworkers can just be seen as victims, but they really are powerful actors as well. I think that needs to be a key part of the story.’
The loss of pollinator services from climate change compounds with the additional ways climate change is putting economic stress on farmworkers and farmers. Acknowledging the intersectionality of these crises underscores the need for multi-faceted solutions that prioritise both farmworker labour justice and pollinator conservation. Such an approach requires thinking critically about for whom climate solutions are created. Rethinking climate resilience raises questions over the sustainability of the existing economics and politics of agriculture. Climate justice movements can offer a framework for pursuing solutions to pollinator loss that embrace solidarity, intersectionality, and systemic change for farmworkers.
Recall the farmer from the introduction that lost her farm to drought and flood. ‘What keeps this woman going,’ researcher Pinzón Jimenez told me, ‘is her profound love for agriculture and her sheer determination […]. It really makes you think about how we need to think about resilience from a more critical perspective. Being resilient to climate catastrophes is not necessarily a good thing if we are perpetuating the status quo in a system that is deeply unjust. We need to think about the question of resilience for whom.’
I would like to thank Dr Mark Cooper, Natalia Pinzón Jimenez, Dr Jonathan London, Steve Haring, Dr Elina Niño, Dr Leif Richardson, Dr Jake Cecala, Dr Charlie Nicholson, Dr Gianalberto Losapio, Bobby Arlen, and Jeff Kessler for providing their expertise, time, and valuable perspectives on these issues. I would like to thank Dr Emily Polk and Dr Sibyl Diver for providing suggestions for climate and labour justice related readings that informed this story and for introducing me to climate and environmental justice framings. I would like to thank Wallerand Bazin for providing editorial feedback on this piece.
Rebecca Nelson is an ecology PhD student and freelance writer at the University of California, Davis. She researches how human-caused changes to the environment affect relationships between plants and pollinators. She obtained her bachelor's of science in biology and a minor in creative writing from Stanford University. She is interested in relationships between people and the environment, science and culture, and place-based approaches to land stewardship. Her first collection of poems, Walking the Arroyo is available on Kindle.
Artwork by Chiara Lo Zito. You can learn more about Chiara and her work on her website.