“Food, Farming, and Fracking” with Kitchen Table Talks

Hydraulic Fracking

I’m not a farmer. I’m what some might call an earth-minded food enthusiast or green foodie. Whether one is at the producing or consuming end of the food chain, it is important to know the relationships and issues that exist within our food systems.

Since I joined the FarmsReach team, I’ve learned a lot about the players within our food system and the issues that affect everyone from farmers to eaters. One such issue affecting every individual in the food system is fracking. Having just returned to San Francisco from China, I hadn’t heard of fracking, and as I learn quickly about this destructive process used to produce oil, it strikes me as imperative that others also become aware of this issue.

Q: What is fracking? Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a method of oil and gas production that involves blasting millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and toxic chemicals, under high pressure deep into the earth. Fracking breaks up rock formations to allow oil and gas extraction. But it can also pollute local air and water and endanger wildlife and human health. – FRACKING IN CALIFORNIA: QUESTIONS AND CONCERNSCenter for Biological Diversity


From left to right: Twilight Greenaway, Kassie Siegel,
Jim Leap, Mark Nechodom.

Last Wednesday at the Ferry Building, Kitchen Table Talks hosted a “Food, Farms & Fracking” panel discussion. The discussion was moderated by freelance journalist Twilight Greenaway, former food editor at Grist.org. Panelists included Mark Nechodom, Director of California’s Department of Conservation, the agency that regulates fracking in California; Kassie Siegel, Senior Counsel and Climate Law Institute Director at the Center for Biological Diversity, the organization pushing for more research and regulation of fracking impacts; and one of our very own Featured Farmers, Jim Leap, organic farmer and former Farm Manager at the U.C. Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, and member of Aromas Cares for the Environment (ACE).

Kassie Siegel gave a short “tutorial” on the fracking process, and later shared several cases of workers, residents and livestock near fracking sites suffering health problems from exposure to chemicals in the fracking process and/or the water-chemical runoff.

Mark Nechodom gave politic explanations of the state of fracking, and how the systems in place are all regulated and monitored very closely.  He shared that because fracking operations have existed in California for longer than other regions in the U.S., the protections and safeguards are truly robust.  However, to what extent the process is regulated or monitored is somewhat vague, as research of negative impacts is limited to date, according to Ms. Siegel.

One significant point of contention was about the chemicals used in the fracking process. Many – if not all – fracking companies opt to use proprietary mixtures of chemicals protected as trade secrets, which means they don’t have to disclose which specific chemicals they are mixing with water for each “frack job”.  When several fracking companies are being accused of polluting water and soil, Ms. Siegel asked why these companies don’t opt to protect their chemical formulas using patents instead of trade secrets. Patents would require companies to disclose the chemical formula being patented, but then they would be protected. Good point!

Aromas Homestead

Jim Leap’s homestead farm in Aromas

While much of the discussion was really a debate between Mr. Nechodom and Ms. Siegel, it was nice to hear a farmer’s point of view.  Jim Leap shared his story about when fracking companies arrived in Aromas in 2012, and how he initially thought “ag could save the day” if farmers in his region would protest this oil extraction process that has been shown to have negative (and sometimes toxic) effects on water quality and accessiblity.  Much to his dismay, he soon discovered that farmers – even strong advocates for organics or sustainability – have been hesitant to step up against this complicated and controversial topic.  It is not certain exactly why neighboring farmers, the Farm Bureau, and several other farm nonprofit organizations are choosing to abstain from the issue; but one can guess it may be any combination of ignorance, the lure of selling mineral rights for income, fear of increased prices of water and resources, or simply libertarian values.  Nonetheless, their city was able to pass an ordinance to stop the fracking progress, at least for now.

Although the current state of fracking in the United States appears bleak, it was comforting to learn about the food community in New York uprising, with support from diners as well as chefs like Mario Batali.  And, interestingly, Artists Against Fracking, with leaders like Yoko Ono and Julian Lennon, have had success in raising awareness as well.

While the discussion was not directly related to the impact fracking has on food and farming, enough was said by all panelists to conclude the dire necessity for further investigation of health and environmental impacts, and more transparency — especially regarding the 1,750 square mile Monterey Shale, located in the Central Valley right under some of the most productive farmland in the world.

In the meantime, if like myself, this issue is new and alarming, you can visit the Center for Biological Diversity for more information and frequently asked questions.

Written by Shanti Christensen & Melanie Cheng.

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