What do Californians get in exchange for ‘feeding the world’?

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.




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18 responses to “What do Californians get in exchange for ‘feeding the world’?

  1. Anonymous

    Great, thought-provoking, painful posts. Don’t stop.

  2. aaronmandell

    Answer: the same benefit derived from every other natural resource that is produced and served into an open market. What do you think would happen if we decided to limit oil production to just domestic demand? The short answer is prices would sky rocket because demand would fall off and production would be cut way back. Therefore we benefit greatly from global trade of commodities. The same is true of agriculture.

    Aaron Mandell 617-823-6004


    • What if you put an economic value on clean water, flowing rivers, healthy forests, clean air, thriving fishing economy, etc.? What would the monetary benefit be then to selling CA’s crops internationally?

    • Until 2016 there was a ban on the export of US crude oil. Price during the last 10 years has swung wildly from $140 to $30. I am not sure that makes a good example for your assertion.
      I am under the impression that, other factors being equal (and they never are) that cutting demand by limiting who can buy something causes price to fall as producers compete to sell what they have.

  3. Well done. Thank you.

  4. John

    America has thrived because it meets demand, not run from it. Farm business provides jobs and demand for manufactured products such as tractors and irrigation products. Let’s find and store more water, and
    not hobble our entrepreneurs. (I know you won’t publish this, but I know you will read it. Hope you learn something!)

  5. Bob Johnson

    A truly brilliant rant. Thank you for raising this issue. It’s time to discuss whether the sacred cow of feeding the world still serves the people of California. Also, what exactly are we feeding them, pistachios?

  6. Diane Livia

    Kennedy’s (purported) idea that CA can “feed the world” is an example of the worst kind of self-serving hubris the 60s gave us. Right up there with his idea that we should stop communism in Vietnam. Lots of rich folks got richer, and lots of poor folks got deader. We can’t even bring ourselves to supply clean water to all the people of this State before we make more millionaires. Maybe we should decide not to have children go hungry in CA before we get onto feeding the world. It’s not really a matter of “can we do it.” It’s a matter of what gaps in our society’s well-being we should work on first.

  7. Arturo Rodriguez

    At least if some of that wealth reached agricultural workers there could be additional positives to big ag California.

    • Diane Livia

      Even better would be that wealth reaches agricultural workers without the huge profits of “big ag.”

  8. Stacey

    The question shouldn’t be “how do we feed the world?” It should be “what do we need to do so that the people of the world can feed themselves?”

  9. Anonymous

    I have been pondering a similar question this year. I wish I could find the exact article that I read it in, but it was related to farming in Borrego Springs, and a grower was quoted as saying something that you hear in various forms quite often, which is “there is no higher purpose for our water than growing food.” This kind of statement really strikes me because it is meant to be a kind of conversation ender — something that is impossible to argue with. But, it actually poses a pretty big question, and is a place I would like to see a public conversation *start*. It seems like one of the most important conversations we could be having, but as you note in your previous post, many of these vital areas where we need to be deeply questioning our assumptions also seem to be the most taboo. How can we make this conversation one that doesn’t need to be had anonymously?

    • onthepublicrecord

      Well, a group with credibility could hold a conference on the topic. I would absolutely love hearing people talk with sophistication about the types of food we want to provide (sufficient calories? low-carbon protein? table fruits and veggies? everything to everyone? especially suited to our soils?) and the types of farming that give the most back to California (cute ag tourism? large-scale providers of cheap products? integrated into small towns? provide farming lifestyle to those who want it? resilient against shock?). What are we looking for here?

      I have consistently written up my thoughts on retiring agricultural lands. My best attempt to make it sound like a conversation and not an attack is to pair it with the question: “and how do we take care of the people who are being edged out of farming by decreasing water availability?”

      I would dearly love if people realize that ag isn’t all-or-nothing. A decrease in ag, including the end of west side farming, wouldn’t mean that no one ever ate a California peach again.

    • qwertyasdf1010

      On the issue of who we are “edging out” by diminishing water delivery, your previous post about wealthy Westlands farmers does suggest that these people have profited handsomely and, as such, that “edging them out” is perhaps less of a moral wrong. I’m sure that not all farmers in Westlands are wealthy, of course, and perhaps there could be some means-tested way to compensate smaller farmers for the loss of their capital.

    • onthepublicrecord

      I also use synecdoche, to make Westlands stand in for all west side agriculture. But their are another several districts to the south of Westlands that go quietly under the radar, and are just as bad. They very wisely keep out of the press, but most of the Resnicks’ property is south and west of Westlands.

      And yes, I think retiring the lands of the extremely wealthy is better than retiring the lands of the smaller farms. If it makes the extremely wealthy sad to have water for those farms taken away, they can comfort themselves with their lives of luxury.

  10. clew

    California imports a whole lot of stuff that’s toxic to manufacture, which is not just using up but fouling water elsewhere. It might be the sweet side of the deal to merely *draw down* all of California’s water, to have a desert that will be okay after ten or a hundred years’ being let alone.

    (California streams haven’t finished belching out Gold Rush fines, IIRC.)

  11. Your post has an important false premise: that someone made an explicit decision that California would be the breadbasket of the world. The fact is that the marketplace, made up of billions of individuals’ decisions, made that “decision.” We already know that attempts to centralize planning and allocation was a miserable, even catastrophic, process, particularly for agriculture (can you say “Five-Year Plan”?) Don’t pretend that we can somehow do it better, because the problems we’ve had in California’s electricity sector since the late 1970s demonstrates that we can’t.

    If you really want to solve the problem, instead of looking for a desired end point, which you can’t achieve because you can never get control of all of the necessary handles of the economy, you should look for where decisions are being distorted. Of course these include farm programs and water project contracts, and there are probably other elements as well. That would be much more constructive than rants that are truly pointless because they will never, ever happen.

  12. Well, the referenced opinion piece in the ModBee was what it was: an expression of disappointment in our evolving understanding of reality filtered through a Devin Nunes-inspired culture war filter. To me, asking California to subordinate a functioning ecosystem to a 50 year old rhetorical flourish is a silly premise for public policy.
    Part of our evolving understanding of reality is that the future may be a drier climate with less snowpack than we thought in the past. Certainly the last 4 years of runoff were the driest since 1580. Certainly this last year saw the most wells run dry in the electric pump age.
    There was a lot of point of view in that opinion that I didn’t share, but I was particularly struck by the culture-war slap at Jerry Brown. He tried to complete a major part of the water infrastructure vision by backing the Peripheral Canal, only to see it torpedoed in part by Salyer-Boswell farming interests.

    Now Brown is trying to get the twin tunnels built, so that the kind of problem that prevented pumping during this winter’s storm runoff could be avoided. I have serious doubts that the interests that are clamoring for more water will ever pay for the twin tunnels, but I would think they could at least tip their caps to Brown’s effort or come up with a solution. And killing off the rest of the Delta ecosystem is not a better idea to most of the state’s voters.

    While we are on the subject of “vision”, here is a vision of water diversion that is actually codified into law, not just dropped into a long-ago speech:
    It turns out that vision is not so well served by a San Joaquin River that usually has no water in it between Fresno and Mendota Pool. When to we fulfill that vision? When do we obey that law?