California's Secretary of Agriculture Addresses the Grocery Industry

A Letter from the Vice President, State Government Relations, FMI

Pat Davis
California's water struggles have brought increased national and international attention to the state's importance to the global food chain.

California is currently facing one of the most severe droughts in state history. FMI is monitoring the impact of California's extreme drought and its effect on the industry and the nation's food supply. Recent figures indicate that more than 80 percent of the state is in extreme drought or worse, with 2013 coming in as the driest year on record. The impact of this unprecedented dry spell on California agriculture is only beginning to be registered. Researchers at the University of California Davis estimate that the drought is responsible for $2.2 billion in economic damage to state crops this year. While that is just a small percentage of a $42.6 billion industry, these damages may only grow.

California's water struggles have brought increased national and international attention to the state's importance to the global food chain. With an estimated two billion more people to feed worldwide in the next 20 years, there is widespread concern about the level of California's ability to help address that challenge. California Secretary of Agriculture, Karen Ross, believes her state will be up to the challenge.

On August 6, Secretary Ross addressed the FMI 2014 State Issues Retreat in La Jolla, California. In her remarks, the Secretary touched on many diverse topics affecting the grocery industry, including bee pollination, bio-technology, and egg production, among many others. But most importantly, she spoke about California's efforts to manage its water shortage. Secretary Ross believes that with a combination of the application of technology, careful water management and faster and more efficient plant breeding, the state can meet the challenges posed by the drought. The devil is in the details, of course, and the Secretary admitted that much depends on whether the state can implement its "California Water Action Plan." The plan calls for a $6 billion bond to fund: 1) improved conservation efforts; 2) recycling; 3) restoration projects; and 4) $2 billion per year for water storage.

Beyond water management issues, Secretary Ross highlighted the central importance of science and technology to the food industry as a whole. She noted that venture capital is increasingly coming to agriculture, and consequently, the pace of technological change may only quicken. Already, farmers are implementing science-fiction-like technologies such as "solar-powered, mobile desalination stations." Secretary Ross also acknowledged the uneasiness of some consumers with the intersection of science with their food. "Science is farther ahead than the people," she said. "It's in our best interest to protect choice for the consumer."

The Secretary emphasized that despite people's concerns about technology and food, droughts and bee shortages, at the end of the day, food brings people together. "The world is an interesting place. When it comes to food, it's a common language."

Only a week after Secretary Ross's remarks, California took a major step towards implementing its Water Action plan, when the legislature passed, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed, a $7.5 billion water plan to put before voters in November. FMI will continue to monitor the situation in the state for new developments.