A few weeks back I wrote a newsletter discussing California’s critical role in supplying tomatoes to the U.S. and the world. But it’s not just tomatoes. Our state currently grows more than two-thirds of all the domestically grown fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S. 100% of that produce is produced with at least some irrigation.
But every year, American farmers produce a smaller percentage of the nation’s fresh produce: 53% of fresh fruit is now imported and 36% of vegetables are now imported. The single biggest supplier of imported produce to the U.S. is Mexico — which has lower labor costs and fewer regulations — and many U.S.-based farming businesses produce some or all of their crops in our southern neighbor. This trend includes organic produce.
With a long-term drought impacting water supplies not just in California but in most western states, a conflict is taking place wherein state and local governments seek to protect the state’s water supply for their residential and commercial users. These are, after all, the majority of voters who pay largest percentage of taxes. As the largest water user, agriculture is an easy target, and government leaders are cutting off farms from public water supplies and restricting pumping of groundwater. As a result, farmers are fallowing land and growing fewer crops.
In most of our lifetimes, there has never been a widespread shortage of food in the U.S., and it sometimes seems there is an overabundance. And there is wide agreement that there is a shortage of housing. So perhaps our leaders can be forgiven for thinking that nothing bad will happen if they take water away from “a few” farms.
But anyone who actually thinks that Mexico will be able to grow more food for us may be in for a surprise: our neighbor to the south is also experiencing a severe drought (as are several other important agricultural areas worldwide). Over 48% of the country is currently experiencing severe drought, and over half of its cities and towns are running out of water.
Like California, Mexico has been coasting for decades on water infrastructure that was designed and built fifty or more years ago to provide for a much smaller population. Now, reservoirs and wells are drying up under the pressure of the drought. A full-blown water crisis is occurring in Monterrey, MX, where faucets have run dry and desperate people line up all day for once-a-week water deliveries. Street protests are occurring and government water trucks have been hijacked. In response, the state government there has ordered the powerful and economically important beer industry to shut down its factories.
It is far from unthinkable that the Mexican government might restrict or ban export agriculture in order to protect water resources for its own domestic uses, including food production. How much sense does it make for the United States to allow California to continue to take actions that require increasing the amount of food we import from Mexico?
You may ask, “why can’t California just take similar action to ban exports of food?” After all, almonds are the state’s biggest crop and take most of the water. Or just ban exports of almonds to China? Both of these actions would be unconstitutional. Only the federal government can restrict trade this way — and maybe it will, someday. In the meantime, a few of our state’s elected representative in Congress have introduced bipartisan legislation to increase water availability for California’s farmers. But our state leaders are sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars appropriated by voters and seem unable to move forward on increasing water storage.
Food and water are two of the most basic human needs, and in an increasingly unpredictable climate, the two will become even more closely linked than they already are. Water for farming is water for life, pure and simple.