In Defense of Food and Agriculture:A California Perspective

By A. G. Kawamura

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

The critical question of what will happen to agriculture in the new millennia under the predictable challenges coming from population increase, climate change, resource depletion and energy insecurity has recently emerged as a point of urgent attention. Various initiatives from around the world have been formed to elevate the issues of vulnerability, unpredictability and opportunity for nations and regional governments. The pressing new revelations and projections of global climate change complicate an already challenging outlook for world agriculture.

We have heard over and over that the demographic projections show that we will need to double agricultural output by 2050 to meet a Western European style diet for approximately 9 billion people. This is no small task. And yet, when 16,000 children die each day of starvation and tens of thousands more die of malnutrition-related diseases, the questions must be asked: Where are our true priorities? Just how many people will die from global warming? And if they do die, isn't it more than likely that the majority of preventable deaths will come from some failure of the food system, either to deliver or produce a sustaining food supply? Can the ethic of food security for all humans then be linked to the common cause of addressing climate challenges? In the world of agriculture, we can no longer work in parallel silos of good intention. We must respond to the impacts and the need for adaptation, mitigation and innovation. The significant and complex threats that confront all dimensions of agriculture must be revealed and understood in the context of an overarching strategy for agriculture.


Together we can feed the Bees


In the developed world, the luxury of abundance gives us the privilege to choose how our food supply might be produced: Organic/conventional; GMO/heirloom; fast/slow; local/imported; processed/farm-fresh; 365-day/seasonal. In California, we are fortunate to not only argue about what's for dinner, but literally to fight over how it should get on a plate. A quarter of the earth's human population would just like something on the plate everyday. In California we have responded to a demanding worldwide consumer and now produce over 400 different commodities through a myriad of production methods and philosophies.


Having so many choices describes an unprecedented kind of agricultural abundance. It also gives rise to an insidious kind of complacency. Certainly we did not dream up the current California cornucopia in a vacuum. It was created upon a foundation of fundamental principles that provided us with more predictability in our agricultural endeavors. And perhaps that is my greatest concern: History is littered with fallen societies that somehow developed chronic amnesia, manifested as irresponsibility and ultimately, negligence when it came to investing in their food security infrastructure. The backbone of agricultural success depends on invasive pest and disease management, applied scientific research, water system development, transportation, post harvest storage and processing. All of these become the pillars of a stable platform for production. And yet there is an ominous and accelerating decay in the support for these critical components, an undermining of principles across many nations. 

In the U.S., when 2 percent of the population produces the entire domestic food supply, the voice of agriculture becomes muted by the chewing sounds from those who consume but do not produce. In the absence of understanding comes a parade of demagogues -- masquerading as well-intentioned authorities -- who see agriculture as part of the problem and not as a leading force and source of the solution. These so called experts call our system of agriculture “broken”.

Solutions From the Land


While there are plenty of provocative reasons to worry about how safe and how healthy and how local our food might be, there is very little discussion in the media about the actual fate of agriculture. The simple and uncomfortable truth that has caught the attention of true agriculturists around the planet is that unpredictable weather means unpredictable harvest. Along with this comes the well-established observation that changing climate patterns, invasive pests and diseases do not discriminate between countries or farmers. It is a stark and sobering reality.


When people speak about the collapse of agriculture without context, they stand the risk of being accused of crying wolf. I am enormously concerned about the future of farming -- but we do have options. Adaptation is mankind's middle name. Look at where agriculture exists today. So many of the “arable” regions of California are in places that previously were considered inhospitable…the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys were swamps, the Coachella and Imperial Valleys were barren desert!   

The lesson here is that we need to truly understand the potentiality of a “solutions from the land” approach where food, fiber and fuel can be produced with the fundamental understanding that an infrastructural foundation must be in place for it to progress. In the 21
st century it will mean protecting and creating prime farm lands; looking to the oceans for additional water, minerals and growing space; enabling biomass and other renewable energy processes; landscaping an edible urban forest of cities; pursuing home permaculture greenhouse and backyard production sites. We will see innovative food, water and energy sheds develop in response to regional security goals and demands. Agriculture will be big and small, technically complex and simple. It will need to be dynamic. It must be successful.


We can “survive” global warming, but is simple survival our goal? How can it be that California is the 5th largest agricultural economy in the world with a record- breaking farm gate of $37.5 billion for 2010…at a time when so many other industries are in recession or decline? In defense of food and agriculture the success of California is in part because of the blessings of resources, the borrowing and creation of new science and technologies…and is surely because of the ingenuity, vision and leadership of those agriculturists who can see a different reality for their world.


Mankind has the capacity to bring together the wisdom of the past with the accumulated technologies of today and create a sustainable path upon which humans can finally emerge and leave the shackles of survival and enter an age of living. The specter of collapse or the promise of renewal in the face of global climate change or any other threats to our food and life systems should be an easy choice for us to make. I believe that through a convergence of our incredible human resources towards a vision of a sustainable living world, we can build a wellness strategy that embraces as one of several pillars, an agricultural renaissance that will teach us to thrive.  

About the author: A.G. Kawamura is the former secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture in November 2003. He is a produce grower and shipper from Orange County, where his family grows strawberries, green beans and other specialty crops.

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