Agri­cul­ture: It’s worth the wa­ter

Cal­i­for­nia’s econ­omy is in­cred­i­bly di­verse, and agri­cul­ture is a key part of that di­ver­sity.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By Karen Ross and Daniel Sum­ner Karen Ross is Cal­i­for­nia agri­cul­ture sec­re­tary. Daniel Sum­ner is a pro­fes­sor of agri­cul­tural and re­source eco­nomics at UC Davis.

Pun­dits here in drought­stricken 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 gros- sly 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, f lat 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. “Non­durable 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.

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