Op-ed: California Agriculture Is Worth the Water

Op-ed: California Agriculture Is Worth the Water

June 3, 2015

California agriculture is worth the water

Op-ed co-authored by Secretary Ross and Daniel Sumner in the LA Times

SalinasLettuce1000

By Karen Ross and Daniel Sumner

Pundits here in drought-stricken California have become fond of proclaiming that farms consume 80% of the state’s water and generate only about 2% of its gross domestic product. “Why devote so much of our water to an industry that contributes so little fuel to our economic engine?” they ask.

Both of those figures are deceptive. It’s only possible to arrive at 80% by not accounting for the amount of water dedicated to environmental uses. (For example, the water in rivers that flows into the sea.) And the 2% figure grossly undersells the importance of food grown in California.

California’s economy is incredibly diverse, much like its topography, its climate and its population. That’s a significant benefit when you’re the eighth-largest economy in the world. And agriculture is a key part of that diversity.

Of course, many aggregate sectors constitute a larger share of our economy than agriculture. Finance, insurance and real estate tops the list at 21%. Professional services and government follow at 13% and 12%, respectively.

Beyond those sectors, we have a broad, flat grouping of several categories, each representing just a few percent of the state’s GDP. That’s a remarkably balanced profile that lends resilience and dynamism to our economy.

Let’s look more closely at that data, though. Is agriculture really just 2.1%? As is so often the case with statistics, what’s not in that number is more significant than what is.

Take the “utilities” category, for instance. It includes power generated for farms and for processing and marketing crops once they’re harvested. The “real estate” piece includes sales and leasing of agricultural acreage and processing facilities. “Non-durable goods manufacturing” includes food and beverage processing. “Wholesale trade” and “retail trade” does not just mean the shopping mall; it includes the supermarket, the food court and the regional produce hub.

Categories such as “transportation and warehousing” and “finance and insurance” are linked into every one of our 78,000 farms, each of which needs trucks, banks and insurance coverage to bring in the harvest.

“Accommodation and food services” not only runs on food but also is fond of promoting the fact that many of the most healthful and desirable foods and beverages grow on California farms and ranches. California, after all, helped start the farm-to-plate movement, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that agriculture is tied to the state’s identity from harvest (Cesar Chavez) to table (Alice Waters).

Granted, all economic sectors have ripple effects and multipliers. But unlike most other segments, California’s agricultural productivity and diversity are not readily duplicated elsewhere. Our soils and climate are what have made it possible for us to supply so much of our nation’s and the world’s food.

Food is central to California in more than just the nutritional sense. It contributes to nearly every aspect of our economy and our lives, an important point to keep in mind as we weigh what our water is worth during this drought, and the next one.

Karen Ross is California agriculture secretary. Daniel Sumner is a professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis.

More California Ag News

BIG WATER RALLY SCHEDULED FOR JAN. 16! Thousands Needed To Participate In Big Water Rally on Jan. 16  
Solano County 4-H Clubs Win Big at Skills Day When Life Gives you Lemons, Make Lemon Curd! Showmanship winner Tyler Scott of the Wolfskill 4-H Club DIXON--Tyler Scott of the...
California Ag News UC To Help Ranchers UC to Help Ranchers Survive Winter 2013-14 The first agricultural operations to feel the impact of a drought are dryland ranchers, many of whom r...
MONTEREY FARM BUREAU WARNS CPUC ON WATER ISSUES Desalination Plant Could Jeopardize Groundwater Supply California American Water could threaten the ground water supply of the Salinas Valley where u...