Agriculture secretary assesses challenges awaiting state's food system
By Lou Fancher
The California food system is at a critical crossroads, according to California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross.
Speaking Nov. 9 to a large audience that nearly filled the Banatao Auditorium on the UC Berkeley campus, Ross said the state's 400 diverse, high-quality, nutrient-dense, almost-year-round crops offered unparalleled opportunities, but also challenges.
"How do we build upon the improvements we've done," Ross asked, highlighting California's farming legacy as "the home of" restaurateur and healthy food advocate Alice Waters; Cesar Chavez, founder in 1962 of United Farm Workers (America's first and largest farm workers union); and wine industry pioneers Robert Mondavi and Ernest and Julio Gallo.
She focused on Chavez, saying, "Because we had the UFW, we do have laws that improve the conditions" for workers.
Appointed to her position in January 2011 by Gov. Jerry Brown, Ross was president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers from 1996-2009 and declared herself to be "just a farm girl from Western Nebraska."
Despite the advent of innovative agricultural technology, including robotics, Ross said farming is still an artisan, hands-on endeavor. As such, careful regulations must be preserved or strengthened to protect and sustain agriculture's workforce. Shifting to environmental concerns, she said the purity of the state's water basins must be preserved.
Measures such as Proposition 65, which requires that products containing select chemicals carry warning labels; stronger nitrate controls that put stringent requirements in place so farmers think about how crops are fertilized and irrigated crops; and similar measures will ensure best practices. Even so, cooperation among stakeholders -- big agriculture, government, farmers, laborers and others -- won't be easy in the years to come. "This is a huge social science project," she said.
Addressing California's four-year drought, Ross said every person has a responsibility to conserve, recycle, capture stormwater and improve watershed management to mitigate the effects of long-term water deficits.
Climate change is a "huge, huge, topic," she said. Strategies that extend beyond 2030 are essential and will include meeting goals Gov. Jerry Brown has tasked her department with that are aimed at reducing petroleum use and improving building energy efficiency each by 50 percent, insuring half of energy comes from renewable sources.
They also include plans to preserve natural working landscapes and store carbon on the land.
Quantifying the results, she said, will be critical to establish future practices like Brown's Healthy Soils Initiative. "Understanding this veneer we've been walking on is the secret to everything that gives us life," Ross said. Building up carbon in soil to protect biodiversity, wildlife habitats, pollinator health and other environmental areas are goals of the initiative.
Driving it all, she said, are middle income demographics -- "The 1.1 billion people with discretionary income who want their food to be safe, healthy and nutritious."
The immediate, most imperative concerns are achieving better water use, waste management, and food served in schools. Longer term, "Climate change and water are our greatest challenges for the security of our planet and (they) will dictate how we live in the 22nd century," she said.
Moderator Dr. Glenda Humiston, vice president of the university's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, asked Ross about job creation, technology, and government, business and private partnerships. Ross said the USDA failed to invest adequately into mechanization research, so career pathways for farm workers lag behind those in other sectors. On the flip side, she's encouraged by increased grants that support small rural farmers and organic farms, more urban farming initiatives,
Farm-to-School programs, and support from health organizations such as Kaiser Permanente that she said are particularly vital for solving food insecurity issues.
Bringing multiple sectors together and making college students a "center point of the discussion" will allow competing sectors to find strategic solutions, move agriculture to smaller, safer ground, and "save the species of the world," Ross suggested.
"I'm so jealous of the opportunities before you," she told students in the audience. "When I think about what you are going to do about this world, I'm excited and confident."
Asked by Humison what she'd choose to have as her dissertation if she returned to academia, Ross said she'd like to explore the intersection of growing, cooking and enjoying healthy food from childhood to adulthood.
The event was co-sponsored by the Berkeley Food Institute, School of Public Health, and Matsui Center at the Institute of Governmental Studies.