In summary

Making a comparison as a measure of the worth for agriculture in California is one-dimensional, inequitable and short-sighted.

By Kathleen Arambula-Reyna, Fresno

Kathleen Arambula-Reyna is a professor of political science for Madera Community College.

Re “Here’s the first step to a sustainable water policy”; Commentary, Jan. 26, 2022

We hear ad nauseum that agriculture accounts for 80% of water usage in California yet only contributes 2% to the state’s economy. It’s a comparative statistic used to bring attention to this apparent lack of equity and efficiency. 

The incredibly disproportionate figures are frequently used to generate outrage, in hopes to bring change in California’s long embattled water policy. Using this comparison as a measure of the worth for agriculture in California, particularly for a Central Valley resident, strikes a nerve. It’s a one-dimensional, inequitable and short-sighted lens by which to view the complex issue of water in our state. 

One-dimensional in that it reduces the conversation to saying something should matter in proportion to what it contributes to the GDP. First a note on the 80% of water used and 2% of GDP figures: the former is misleading as it omits that 50% of the total water stays in the system for the environment and the latter does not encompass the added value from related industries such as processing, transportation, retail, etc. which brings the value closer to 6% of the California economy. Even if it was just 2%, certainly we don’t make statewide decisions based on contributions to GDP otherwise, our parks would take a backseat to the lumber industry.

Inequitable in that the 2% GDP figure may be applicable statewide, but it is not an accurate representation of the economic importance of agriculture for the millions of people in the Central Valley. In Fresno County 1 in 9 jobs is on the farm, in Kings County its 1 in 6. For each one of these jobs, there are two to three jobs created elsewhere in the economy.

Short-sighted because we are talking about food and people. Yes, there are businesses that contribute to the GDP, but their product is food, not widgets. California is a top ag producer worldwide, its richness of agriculture is unparalleled. To enlist the GDP as a qualifier of agricultural access to water, is a misleading and dangerous call to action. 

Consider the following: Say we aren’t worried about food production in our state. What do we then do with entire communities whose founding and subsistence are tied to agriculture? Families need a job to feed their kids. Schoolteachers need children to teach. Business owners need clients. Government needs a tax base to fund infrastructure and programs. What is the plan for our rural areas?  

If we as a state are comfortable with ignoring millions of people in the Central Valley, the implications of a dwindling food supply and higher food prices, then we are on the right course. If this is unsettling to you, then let’s support comprehensive approaches that aren’t one-dimensional, inequitable and short-sighted.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions: commentary@calmatters.org