Mr. Michelena, a West Side grower, writes a column for the Modesto Bee lamenting that Californians have abandoned the vision of “feeding the world.” He ties that vision back to JFK, but I have never heard a coherent argument for why California should feed the world. Why should California exhaust her limited natural resources to meet a relatively infinite demand? This is before my time, but perhaps JFK’s motivations were altruism and the optimism of the 1950s. (I find myself resentful of Eastern politicians who view western resources as trading chips, even for noble things.)
Even with the best of motivations, is there any limit to how far California should draw down her waters to feed the world? Here are possible bookends: California feeds only herself, on perhaps a million acres of irrigated lands (about 3.5MAF/year), an amount that the natural environment could readily provide. At the other bookend, California could attempt to meet world food demand; we could divert every river, drain our aquifers below the levels that are cost-efficient to pump, drain every dam every year, pay the increasing costs of generating new pieces of water that are clean enough to farm with. Which end of the spectrum are we closer to now, with ag water consuming about 30MAF/year? If we continue or expand the irrigated acreage to feed the world, when does each incremental unit of water diverted cost us something increasingly precious, like a creek or a species? Somewhere on that spectrum of water diverted for agriculture, there must be a point where the trade-off in natural resources gets too high. Mr. Michelena’s column is part of our larger conversation about where that line should be. I personally believe we passed that line more than two decades ago.
But I have more questions about this concept, that California should feed the world. We could use our excellent soils and abundant sunshine and limited water to feed the world. But what will the world give us in exchange for that? In exchange, will they send us cold rivers? Or historic salmon runs, that we can witness and be thrilled for? Will they send us millions of live smelt, to swim in our estuaries or even to be bait on our fishhooks? Will they give us swimming holes in granite boulders? No, they can’t do that. In exchange for food, other places will give us money. Money is nicely useful, although it cannot recreate the things we lose by diverting rivers. Worse, this exchange takes a communal, public resource that almost all Californians get the benefit of (water in rivers, aquifers, estuaries) and turns it into a private resource that few (several thousand farmers) get the benefit of.
And here it is time to talk about how ugly this distribution of money has become. The next economic argument is that those farmers move that money through the farm economy out to other Californians, who will be able to buy things they want more than the rivers they lost. That is not true of all farming in the state. It is true of some farmers, in some local economies. But for most of the acreage in the western and southern San Joaquin Valley, the money from ‘feeding the world’ becomes concentrated among the already rich. The Resnicks are the first among those, but there are many millionaires alongside them. Today, with the way that wealth and farmland on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley is currently distributed, “feeding the world” means turning rivers and canyons and fish that all Californians could visit into additional wealth for the already wealthy. As it now stands, that doesn’t even mean wealth percolating through a local farm economy; it means that all Californians get back for the waters they lost is whatever philanthropy those wealthy few happen to pursue. That may be a worthwhile deal for Angelenos who like art. But most other Californians might choose differently, and I’d like the choice to be explicit.