Long term policy for agriculture: the Californian example

Climate & Natural resources,Food Security,Knowledge brokering21 Dec 2010A. Kawamura

This past December at the 2009 COP15 Climate Conference in Copenhagen, one of the most important speeches of the global event was given by, not a scientist or a politician, but a retired admiral. His simple message: unpredictable weather means unpredictable harvest, and the potential for collapsing food systems will certainly lead to global instability and political unrest. This was not a warning but a sobering reminder of the past 10,000 years of agricultural history.

In developed and developing countries, agriculture has recently been described as the culprit and the victim by a global society that depends on it and yet barely understands it. We have had food scares, food fights, food wars and food scarcity during a time when the 20th century successes of agriculture surpassed all previous measures and predictions. In the United States, there are certain groups that cling to the negative memories of an agricultural system that has clearly made its share of mistakes. We learned that just because you had the capability to plow up every acre of the Midwest with steel plows and combustion driven tractors – that wasn’t the best way to care for topsoil. We realized that just because you could kill every bug in the field or put out every forest fire – it didn’t mean that that was the best management practice. We watched as some of the world’s most productive temperate climate lands of the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles Basin were paved over in less than 2 generations. And while we may have developed great land grant colleges, achieved incredible yields through breeding and expanded super markets with more food choices than have ever existed, the world continues to bite the hand that feeds at a time when, more than ever, it needs to hold that hand and leave the 20th century behind.

In California we have created an agricultural framework for the 21st century called AgVision 2030. It started as an effort to answer Governor Schwarzenegger’s call for a strategic business plan for the San Joaquin Valley, the most productive agricultural region on the planet. But as there are other dynamic agricultural regions in the golden state that have their own unique attributes, it was decided to pursue a whole-state strategy to help align the needs of the agricultural community with the future needs of the state, nation and world. During statewide listening sessions expert panels discussed and explored the vulnerabilities and potentialities of our food, fiber, feed and renewable fuel systems. The clear lesson learned during the AgVision process was that the agricultural industry cannot exist in a silo when over 98% of the public is no longer involved in agricultural production. The expectation of abundance that comes from our consumers is based on an assumption of deliverables that seems like a promise but is actually, a hard earned privilege. That luxury of abundance creates a sense of entitlement where opinions about food end up as policies and politics. AgVision is an attempt to bring back a sense of reality to the very difficult task of maintaining and sustaining our productive capacity as the nation’s number one producing state to supply critical resources in the face of significant challenges in the decades to come. All the citizens of the world are stakeholders in the success or failure of agricultural endeavors. Ultimately, they are the ones that cannot continue to exist in a silo.

The magnitude of vulnerability for the world’s food systems has increased in complexity over the past century. Alarmingly, significant climate change projections have negatively magnified the traditional concerns about weather phenomena, resource depletion, invasive pests and diseases and their potential impacts on the dependability of agriculture. How we collectively respond to these challenges becomes our mutual point of focus. The perennial goal of agriculturists throughout time has been to reduce those factors that drive the unpredictability of the harvest and post-harvest outcome. In the pursuit of food security and sovereignty, Governments will significantly invest in measures and policies that ensure positive results from their agriculture sector. The Farm Bill, Land Grant Universities, massive water and transportation projects are all examples of a premeditated, U.S. developed infrastructure for successful agricultural outcomes. Throughout human history the most developed nations and societies have elected to pursue a strategy of investment in food security that has been driven by a mix of hard learned experience, threats, obstacles and opportunities. Targeted funding and policies by industry, government and NGO’s fuels the adaptive capacity of agriculture to yield solutions from the land. The relentless effort to create a more predictable agricultural outcome becomes the hallmark of any dynamic and sustainable food system.

In The Hague the global agricultural community has taken a significant, bold and timely step to create an agricultural vision of our world in 2050. We will need to move away from vulnerability towards a more sustainable global food system, where the word “sustain” in its simplest form means to ensure the delivery of dependable harvests for all nations. The Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change must create a realistic assessment for the potentiality of 21st century agriculture. As we begin to catalogue the best models and practices for agriculture we immediately recognize that there is no “one best system” but an expanded notion of sustainability. We look to create a world where all farmers are able to utilize and embrace “best management practices” (BMP’s) and site appropriate technologies so that they become “standard management practices” and operational activities. The world’s farmers, nurserymen and ranchers will now have unprecedented access to a virtual school of catalogued BMP’s; accessible and transferable technologies that can show them how to improve their odds for success. The Conference will enable government, NGO and industry strategists and planners to embrace the critical notions of “alignment and scalability”.

All of these positive developments can be stalled however by the unpredictability of government structures of politics, policy and regulation. Investors become hesitant to invest when there is no certainty of incentives – or, actual disincentives. Farmers often suffer as early adopters and find themselves with stranded assets because of regulatory frameworks that are not yet structured to handle the new technologies. Their negative experience sends a quick message to the rest of their associates and delays the potential transformation of entire industry groups.

As and example in California, our AgVision process has highlighted the lack of alignment between government agencies and industry as we attempt to shift into new waste to energy projects for the dairy and other commodity groups. As a consequence, efforts are underway to align the regulatory entities with a legal and environmental programmatic framework that will reduce “friction costs” and seek to reward early adopters/adapters instead of punishing them with regulatory uncertainty, unplanned compliance and zoning restrictions and costly delays. The overall goal is to acknowledge that significant net benefits can be achieved when all stakeholders become partners in the vision and action process. To facilitate this, the creation of an agricultural “ombudsman” that can work within the various government agencies and with industry has been recommended.

The AgVision experience has created a platform for examining the convergence of water, food, energy and knowledge sheds. A new and exciting synergy is emerging as we recognize that the regional scalability of many projects can be aligned to satisfy multiple cross-sector goals. Seeking novel efficiencies has become the focused way to move our ag system even further down the horizon of sustainability. We can see a time when there will be independently thriving regions in our state where energy, water and food needs can be met through the “smart” alignment of systems.

In the 21st century we are talking about “sustainability” in a variety of forums, under various premises and assumptions. There seems to be broad consensus around the concept that sustainable systems embrace a multi-dimensional theme that supports the economy, environment, social equity and education. Those “4-E’s” form the pillars of a foundation upon which a better world might be built. It remains a remarkable fact that there are centenarians who were born before the first flight of the Wright brothers and lived to see a probe of Mars. And yet, in 100 years of unbelievable advances and ingenuity, our collective yet scattered efforts to improve the human condition have not yet devised a way to convince the nations of the world to end hunger once and for all. We may have come close after the tragedies of WWII when the Marshall Plan might have given us a glimpse of the potentiality to step into a different age of man.

But the undeniably tragic fact that some 16,000 humans still perish every single day from chronic malnutrition flies in the face of a world of technological and biological progress. In our luxury of abundance, we can argue globally about what kind of food should be on the table and how it might be produced, while there are billions whose daily plight is the glaring absence of food on the table. Is it ignorance, negligence or simple incompetence that allows malnutrition in rich and poor countries alike? In the decades ahead of us we may be facing unimaginable challenges for the life systems on our planet. We will want to choose a path where living is better than surviving. And in order to do that, we must recognize that there are solutions from the land where the culture of agriculture can allow us to re-establish a sense of responsibility to nurture life through the tenets of renewal, hard work and optimism.