The California Farm Bureau is filling a gap in state policymaking. It has launched a research arm to analyze the potential economic impacts of policies that originate in the European Union and will likely come to California. With new studies in hand, its members are visiting lawmakers this week to deliver the findings on organic agriculture, water use and pesticide bans—as a wave of new bills impacting agriculture floods the Capitol.
“The stuff we see a lot in regulatory agencies is theoretical science. It comes right out of the think tank, right out of the lab and goes straight into regulations,” said Jamie Johansson, president of the California Farm Bureau, during its annual Capitol Ag Conference on Tuesday. “We farm based on consumer demand and markets, and then we use the science we have. We don't know how to farm for a political agenda.”
According to Johansson, the Department of Pesticide Regulation was recently considering concepts for overhauling pesticide use in the state and one idea was to convert 70% of agriculture to organic. The farm bureau pushed back, but later the Air Resources Board (CARB) floated the idea of converting 30% to organic. The farm bureau then partnered with Californians for Smart Pesticide Policy, a coalition of pesticide manufacturers, to fund a new research and science foundation directed by a former CDFA science advisor.
In November Amrith Gunasekara published a study examining the impacts of the proposal, just a week after CARB adopted an update to its Climate Scoping Plan that called for converting 20% of agriculture to organic—doubling the current acreage. At the conference, Gunasekara said it was the first time since he began working in government 14 years ago that the state set an organic target. His study projected that both organic and conventional markets would crash and food prices would skyrocket.
Gunasekara explained how the EU relies on the precautionary principle, prohibiting products when the potential for environmental or human health impacts are uncertain.
“You don't have to have data to develop a policy,” he said. “You can develop it based on beliefs.”
The only economic analysis of the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy was done by USDA, which estimated it would cost trillions of dollars. An organic mandate, meanwhile, set the agriculture industry back five years in Sri Lanka, his native country and home to some of the world’s finest tea, he explained.
Last week Gunasekara took aim at a commonly shared statistic that agriculture uses 80% of the developed water in California, calling it factually misleading and wildly out of context. He found that about 200 million acre-feet of precipitation enters California on an average year and the state captures half of that, while the rest flows to the ocean with no category assigned to it. Agriculture accounts for 30% of the captured water while the environment gets about 65%.
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Considering the uncaptured water, however, means the environment gets 80% and agriculture just 15%.
Next Gunasekara is examining ways for farmers to acquire carbon credits for sequestering carbon in orchards and vineyards. With more than four million acres of irrigated agriculture in California, he sees an enormous potential for financial incentives.
Senator Melissa Hurtado of Bakersfield then took the stage to warn farm bureau members that without substantial state investment in California agriculture, food prices will continue to rise and the diversity of choices for consumers will shrink—impacting social stability across the world, not just in California.
“We need to be in control of California's economic future and, of course, our food security,” said Hurtado.
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