February 1, 2015

Feeding the World When Global Population Reaches Nine Billion: Something to Worry About?

Do you have days when you feel you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t?  I read news reports all the time about our industry, as you probably do.  It’s the criticism in the media that stings when judgments are made that farmers do not use natural resources well, in particular, water.  Some accuse us of exporting our water because we are successful at growing and selling almonds and pistachios for export to other countries.  (By the way, California farmers and ranchers also export a large amount of citrus, dairy and meat products, but for some reason environmental activists train all their fire on almonds and pistachios.)

As much as it bothers me to hear this criticism, do the critics’ arguments have any merits — why shouldn’t we concern ourselves first with feeding and taking care of our own people and preserving water for ourselves in this country?  Should we worry or feel guilty about all the water required to grow commodities and tree nuts which we then export?  But then I read other critics bemoaning the fact that the United States suffers from a negative balance of trade, and that’s not good either.  How many times have you heard someone lamenting the fact that so much of the stuff we buy comes from China?

America has had a trade deficit every year since 1975.  Last year it was around $40 billion.  When he came to office in 2009, President Obama said he wanted the U.S. to double its exports by 2015.  Well, agricultural exports soared to a record $152.5 billion last year (41 percent higher in value over five years).  That was thanks to grain crops, oilseeds and livestock (and some tree nuts) but not fresh fruits and vegetables.  In that category our trade deficit was about $4.4 billion.  There are many reasons for this which could fill several pages of this magazine, but let’s set that aside for later.  The fact is that over the years, fruit and especially vegetable imports, have been increasing and taking over more of our markets while our exports are decreasing.  Exports are a good thing.  We should be proud that America produces something the world wants and needs.  In the future the world is going to need more — much more food than we produce today — and 95 percent of those consumers live outside the United States.

This is an opportunity, not a threat.  World population is expected to grow by 30 percent in the next 30 years with 98 percent of that growth happening in developing countries.  Along with it will be a growing middle class looking for more diverse kinds of food, like fresh produce and tree nuts.  Americans eat very well today.  Soon many more in the world will, too.  Is that a bad thing?  Why should we have to apologize for prudently using natural resources, human resources and capital to grow food that feeds and nourishes people either here or in other places around the globe?

Of course we should worry about feeding a hungry world: for the benefit of people, the benefit of America, and for our own individual benefit.  Look at China, for example.  Over the years we have had trouble competing with them as they took over the garlic market for a while and then the processed apple market.  It’s logical to think that demand will one day exceed supply in China and that it won’t be able to feed its own people everything they want.  The United States has the ability to provide fresh produce and protein-rich nuts for export and is using less water to produce more.

The amount of water it takes to produce a pound of almonds has fallen by a third since 1990. We supply the world with 80 percent of its almonds for a reason.  China, and India, have tried to put down massive plantings of tree nuts and have not been very successful.  According to Dave Doll with the University of California Cooperative Extension, this is because no other region in the world has California’s combination of land, climate, infrastructure, and research.  I agree, and with the benefit of applying more high tech services and products to our industry from another thriving and leading region — Silicon Valley — we are unsurpassed at precision agriculture in many commodity groups.  This is cause for celebration, not apologies.

As people in developing countries discover better eating and gain access to food diversity as their own economies grow, they will desire, want and insist on having the kinds of food America grows and ships.  Yes, we absolutely need to worry about increasing our exports and expanding our markets, and about the balance of trade as well as job creation here in the United States.  We need to worry about the profitability of our industry and businesses within it.  This we know:  We have the best growing climate in the world and with more and better technology we can utilize our natural resources more efficiently and grow more with fewer inputs.  That is our future, so full speed ahead and damn the critics.