By Nick Wilson
The state’s top agriculture leader urged about 250 people — mostly Cal Poly students — Thursday to lead change in the agriculture industry by taking innovative steps to conserve water and encouraging new and efficient ways to farm globally.
“In times of crisis, leadership can take hold and solve problems here and beyond borders,”Karen Ross, secretary of the Department of Food and Agriculture, urged the group in a campus forum at the university’s Chumash Auditorium. “You are going to change the world and for the positive.”
It was her third visit to the university this year to maintain a dialogue with the university on its research. This week, she met with faculty whose expertise includes hydrology and other water issues, animal health, climate change and healthy soils.
“I think the conversation with Cal Poly goes both ways,” Ross said. “There are initiatives that I can learn from and take back home and Cal Poly can be made aware of grants and programs. We’re leveraging our resources.”
Ross spoke to mostly students from the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences for about an hour.
A common thread of the discussion concerned the threat of losing significant amounts of agricultural land in California due to commercial and residential development, taxes associated with inheritance of farm land and a decline in multi-generational farming. Feeding a world population that’s projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 is a key concern.
She spoke about encouraging smaller-scale farming on the outskirts of metropolitan areas and working to educate the public on organic foods as well as genetically modified foods.
“I think what you sometimes get is people wanting to say we should go all GMO or all organic, but how can you make this so both can work?” Ross said. “I don’t think it’s a one or the other scenario. We need to figure out the best possible way to feed the world.”
Ross also touched on issues related to the drought, including the need to focus on conservation and stormwater capture efforts well into the future, even if the anticipated El Niño hits California this year.
She said California is taking the lead on promoting drought-tolerant landscaping, establishing and working towards conservation targets set by Gov. Jerry Brown, and finding ways to collect and store water from rains.
“Let’s not go back to predrought habits,” Ross said. “Let’s work to save those precious drops, and show our leadership worldwide.”
Ross is a proponent of immigration reform, which she believes could help address a shortage in farm labor. But she said partisan gridlock has stalled any chance of substantial change.“Especially with the election coming up, I just don’t see any progress with getting any legislation passed,” Ross said. “Nothing’s going to happen.”
She noted that Gov. Jerry Brown visited Mexico last year to hammer out an agreement with the Mexican government to protect worker rights in the H-2A program, which allows foreign entry into the U.S. for seasonal agricultural work under certain conditions. But she said more comprehensive reform is needed to meet the labor demand.
Ross said California’s economy, ranked eighth in the world in terms of gross state product, is in position to market its products to countries seeking to improve their nutritional habits and become more health-conscious.
She said China previously rejected almonds, for example, but the nut has gained more cultural acceptance through marketing campaigns.
Ross wants to share best practices with farmers in countries such as India and Africa.
“There’s so much that can be done to teach and spread innovation around the world,” Ross said. “Millenials are the ones who will create this change and solve problems so that people in Africa are farming more efficiently and we have sustainable systems around the globe.”