California must localize agricultural production and eliminate water-intense agriculture

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Elina Blazhiyevska/Staff

If you can tear your eyes off the ocean while driving up the Pacific Coast Highway from San Diego, you’ll be surprised to a see a pumpkin patch balancing on sandstone bluffs. Drive north through rural Fresno and you’ll pass miles of a vineyard oasis in the dry Central Valley. Pass Sacramento and you’ll see rural farms relying on drip irrigation to sustain parched farmers market produce plots. From top to bottom, California is synonymous with growth.

Students at UC Berkeley know this well. We are closely tied into California’s agricultural food system, whether you shop at Safeway and Trader Joe’s, have a plan with Cal Dining or buy from one of the many student-oriented organizations on campus. Chances are, a large percentage of what we consume is grown in California — either by the hands of local growers or by monoculture corporate giants that are also supplying produce to the rest of the country.

Though it is a region with only a three-month rainy season, West Coast producers boast about a never-ending supply for America’s produce. But taking continuous advantage of a temperate environment is doing damage that outweighs its profitability. Soil depletion and the effects of monoculture tie into a larger problem: the endless use of water we don’t have.

A 15-year study by NASA shows California to be one of 34 global regions facing intense freshwater depletion. Of the water available, about 40 percent is dedicated to agriculture in the state, the rest toward urban and environmental needs. At the start of last year, two-thirds of Southern California entered into its sixth year of drought, with 63 percent of the state experiencing drought conditions. Groundwater, reservoirs and irrigation pumps do most of the heavy lifting to supply water to cities and farms, and all in the face of persistent drought levels.

The Water Policy Center of the Public Policy Institute of California, or PPIC, issued a report in 2016 about the rising challenge farms are facing with water management. Farms have shifted to more profitable crops, such as nuts and fruits, but these crops demand more water usage. The financial gain isn’t as reassuring as it sounds when you consider that costs of water in the face of scarcity keep increasing profits in check. Economies of scale are changing in the farming industry; the value of outputs rises, but so does the value of resource inputs. The Public Policy Institute of California urges “better water management” for farmers as a solution to sustainability, but it seems like the threat to sustainability is caused by the farming industry that is now at risk. More economical farming is not the way to fix it — farming smaller is.

Scaling back supplies of food and other commodities from global to national to regional to even the local level seems logical in terms of preserving quality and balancing costs against resources. California should scale back its national agricultural industry through local reformation and leave the rest of the nation’s regions to support themselves in the same way. In a capitalist society that values endless economic growth, often without regard for negative externalities, this seems highly unlikely.

Until localized farming can become a reality, we need regions with an environment better suited to support national farming needs. To grow plants requires more than just sun — it demands nutrient-rich soil and dependable rainfall, too. Sprayed fertilizer and irrigation pipelines are hardly substitutes. Other parts of the United States with abundant natural resources and a climate advantageous for heavy agriculture need to take charge. We need to look eastward to states such as Minnesota, Illinois, Kansas, North Carolina or Wisconsin, which are the next-highest producing states, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Yes, a cold winter halts the growing season, but prospective farmers can’t not get excited about that soil composition or annual average precipitation.

In a perfect world, California’s agricultural production and farming would become completely localized. While that may never happen on a state scale, we as a community can change our actions and shopping habits to ensure a more sustainable future. Supporting California’s food economy in a sustainable way does not mean supporting monocultures just because they’re grown in-state. Localization means a statewide collection of counties and cities working together to feed internally and supply regionally. This home focus demands that we pay more attention to how we use our own land and our own water. So for those who are concerned with sustainability, buy local.

As UC Berkeley students, we are surrounded by a number of resources to help us make tangible change. UC Berkeley is the home of so many communities committed to more sustainable agriculture while also making access and engagement easy for students. Consider being a part of student-run organizations such as the Berkeley Food Institute, the Berkeley Student Food Collective or the Student Organic Gardening Association, which each uniquely engage students to think about sustainability and our food systems. There are also organizations separate from the university, such as the Edible Schoolyard Project, which works locally to encourage sustainable agriculture education for all students.

If you haven’t taken time to consider the story behind the food you consume daily, now is a good time. Consider how your choices affect food production and resource preservation at every level of our society, from our campus to the rest of the world. Every food purchase you make either reinforces or fights back against wasteful agriculture production, so vote with your fork. Things have already started in Berkeley, so join us. We can have our produce and our water, too.

Hope Jesmer studies environment and development.