Ripe for Change

David Mas Masumoto

Plenty of books on sustainable agriculture have come out in recent years, but if you’ve been waiting for the movie, it’s here. Acclaimed Bay Area documentary filmmakers Jed Riffe and Emiko Omori have produced Ripe for Change, an insightful look at efforts to change the culture of farming in California to a more sustainable model. Ripe for Change introduces us to those farmers, scientists, noted authors, chefs, and instructors who are taking steps toward creating a community in which sustainable agriculture is possible.

Linda Hunt’s emotive narration leads us to the picturesque farmlands in California’s celebrated growing regions. We hear stories from respected and professional activists in our community, and thus we learn the history behind the farm and produce of the region.

The journey begins at David Mas Masumoto’s farm in Del Rey, California. Mas, who has authored many books, including Epitaph of a Peach, reflects on being a third generation farmer. His organic peach and grape farm is not only a symbol of his parent’s and grandparent’s vision, but of the world he wants for his children. Masumoto explains that his dad was a conventional farmer, but nonetheless concerned about the pesticides and other toxins he used on his crops. “Because he was doing the work, he was going to do it safer.”

Alice Waters appears throughout the film, explaining why she is so impassioned by the practical work being done today in the sustainability movement—a movement she helped launch at Chez Panisse in the 1970s by buying field-ripened organic food directly from local farms. But we also see the theoretical side of the movement through educators, such as Miguel Altieri, professor of Agro-ecology at Stanford University, who is working to create a solid infrastructure for sustainable agriculture. He describes the infrastructure as a three-legged stool that balances at the junction of social justice, economic feasibility, and ecological safety. The metaphor demonstrates that food production must be affordable for the majority of consumers, cost effective for farmers, and healthful for the land. Without any one of these three supports, the stool will fall.

Scientists, such as Tyrone Hayes, Professor of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley, testify to the damage being done by conventional agriculture. Hayes studied frogs living in the same watersheds that supply our urban areas to learn about the effects of Atrazine, a ubiquitous herbicide in conventional agriculture. Tests show that the newborn frogs were hermaphroditic, and unable to develop sperm. Those same hormones have been linked to breast cancer in humans. Atrazine is banned in Europe—where it is manufactured—but it was re-approved for use in the U.S in 2003.

Efran Avalos, of Avalos Farms, communicates his story of working on a mega farm that uses pesticides without caution. We follow immigrant workers as they toil in the fields, all the while knowing the dangers they face from these chemicals. Avalos says that his work scarred him emotionally as much as physically as he watched his friends and family expose themselves to poisons on a daily basis.

The film also addresses the critical topic of fossil fuels, a key ingredient for corporate farming. Richard Heinberg, educator of Peak Oil (oil depletion) and author of Power Down, explains: “The soil basically dies. The soil itself is becoming addicted to Fossil Fuels.” The dead dirt needs petroleum-based fertilizers in order to support plants that used to thrive naturally. The question we must answer for the next generation is: how can we limit the use of fossil fuels when we still use them to produce our food?

Many of us in the Bay Area believe buying from local farms is all we can do. But, argues Riffe, we can take our actions to create a sustainable environment one step further. We can educate our children and our neighbors. We need to focus on connecting the producers with the consumers—to build a link between them.

—Michelle McKniff