A couple thoughts on food security.

Food security hasn’t been used as an advocacy point for California agriculture in the policy debates I’ve witnessed. I have heard that agriculture advocates hesitate to bring it up because the first question after we accept the premise is “how much land and water would it take for California to ensure its own food supply”. That number is so low that “ag” doesn’t want us talking about it.

We can estimate! California grows America’s produce and fruit on 4 million irrigated acres.
California’s population is 40 million people. America’s population is 320 million people.
40million Californians/320million Americans = 0.125.
12.5% of 4 million irrigated acres = 500,000 irrigated acres.

No matter the drought, no matter what climate change brings, Calfornia is going to get enough precip to grow food to feed itself. That said, I would still rather that food security were an explicit goal, which I would use to justify supporting a smaller agricultural base in our state. I predict that ag will shrink considerably, but I would like to see a healthy base of 5 or 6 million irrigated acres.

Economists (even here, in our own comment section) suggest that rather than ensure food security by growing our own, we could rely on being rich and getting food in trade. For important things like food, I’d rather maintain the capacity to grow our own. Just this week we saw an example of trade being inadequate to secure an important resource. When there isn’t none, you can’t buy none.

Because it has irritated me for several days now, I will correct a couple quotes I’ve seen in the recent news. This is sheer pettiness on my part, so I will hide it below the fold.

Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, said Thursday that “it’s understandable that people want to point fingers at first.”

But she said California’s farms are “something to be valued” and that if “you like fruit and vegetables, you like [one-third of California’s] agriculture.”

Doug Parker answers:

A: I find it rather disturbing that some people see this as an urban vs. agriculture issue. The California Constitution states that water belongs to the people of the state. It is our water to use for the benefit of all Californians. I myself am happy to be able to cut back on my water use so that it can be used to grow food. What greater use of water do we have? It is inconvenient and perhaps aesthetically unpleasing to have a brown lawn, but compared to food production and food insecurity, the impact on my own life seems pretty minor.

What greater use of water do we have? Well, there are some pretty good uses, like keeping salmon from extinction and some pretty damn trivial forms of “food”. Sudan grass for Japanese cows? All of California agriculture isn’t equally crucial to feeding humans and I feel no shame in pointing that out.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “A couple thoughts on food security.

  1. Leo

    Where did you get your 4 million acres from (for produce and fruit production)? I thought it was more in the order of 9 million acres and then I found a website that says California’s total farmland is 25 million acres (https://www.agclassroom.org/kids/stats/california.pdf).

  2. You don’t need to be rich to benefit from food trade, you need to have something worth exchanging (Smith 1776) as well as a comparative advantage in producing it (Ricardo 1820).

    The point that I — or any other economist — would make is that self sufficiency is not nearly as useful as trade. Sure, California is a great place to grow food, but not are the cost of destroying its ecosystems or emptying its cities (points where we agree).

    My main recommendation is some form of “cap and trade” on water use among farmers (and maybe cities), as a path to sustainability. Maybe we’d grow almonds or rice. I don’t care. All that matters is that the crops are grown with an eye towards the sustainable use of water, air, land resources.

  3. onthepublicrecord

    Leo,

    I got them from spending time with the USDA’s NASS numbers:
    https://onthepublicrecord.org/2015/03/03/one-third-of-californias-ten-million-irrigated-acres-grow-table-fruits-and-vegetables/

    Total farmland numbers get real big when non-irrigated pasture is included.

  4. jroth95

    Regarding that non-irrigated pasture: I saw one of those social media graphics claiming that much more water in CA is used for meat and dairy than for almonds, while CA almonds are 80% of world production* and CA meat/dairy is basically 1%.

    I know water is used for alfalfa and similar silage, but does livestock really use that much irrigation water relative to almonds?

    *bogus because, of course, almond groves elsewhere have ceased production due to CA competition, but anyway

  5. jroth95

    Oh, and I don’t know that otpr is saying that those 5 or 6 million irrigated acres have to be dedicated to growing produce for Californians, but rather that they’re available for food security purposes. If I buy property in anticipation of TEOTWAWKI, I’ll want to be sure it’s big enough to grow all the food for my family and maybe have running water for a micro turbine, but I don’t need to go off the grid immediately.

  6. Steve Bloom

    David, I think a pure cap-and-trade system is a political non-starter. What might be possible is a sectoral one (e.g. 10% for fruits, 10% for veggies, etc.). Urban voters would get taken care of by guaranteeing their uses (coupled with appropriate conservation measures) along with minimum environmental flows.

    We’d see a lot of permanent fallowing and some expansion of dry farming, but that’s as it should be.