Will California’s Drought Cause Industry’s Positive Reputation To Dry Up?

The severe drought in California — and the subsequent public attention to agricultural water use — threatens the produce industry and its reputation for being one of the good guys in society. An effective response will require more than good PR; it will require the industry to reposition itself from being perceived as water gluttons to wise stewards of our water supplies. In doing so, the industry must take a harder look at the potential of GMOs and the ability of GMO crops to survive a drought and thrive in high-saline-content water.

Very often, severe circumstances and events have impacts long after the specific crisis pasted. For example, habits of thrift adopted during the Great Depression often stayed with those people throughout their lives, and they became commonly known as “Depression Babies.” More recently, during the Great Recession, when consumers traded down from restaurants to home cooking, from high-end stores to mainstream stores, from mainstream stores to discounters, from organic to conventional, and from national brands to private label, one of the key questions was would they trade up if prosperous days returned?

Indeed, in countries such as the United Kingdom, where deep discounters such as Aldi and Lidl gained much market share, panic did not set in when the recession caused market share of discounters to skyrocket. That was assumed to be a reasonable customer response to hard times, but the real panic among mainstream retailers occurred when more prosperous times returned and the discounters didn’t lose market share. In fact, the discounters kept gaining market share.

The fresh-cut salad industry suffered — and continues to suffer — from consequences of the Great Spinach Crisis of 2006, although that specific e-coli 0157:H7 outbreak is long gone. It took years to get back to the pre-crisis sales levels and the category has never regained the momentum of rapid sales growth that it had pre-crisis.

Now the news media is filled with stories of the Great California Drought. Though some of these stories focus on the specific hardships caused by the lack of water — crops not planted, others that cannot thrive, valuable trees put at risk, and labor unemployed because there is no work — much press focuses on production agriculture as “water hogs.” This invective was coined by the editors of Mark Hertsgaard, who wrote a piece in The Daily Beast titled “How Growers Gamed California’s Drought.” After painting a picture of produce industry profiteers screaming, “Show me the money,” and “I’m smiling all the way to the bank,” the substance of his accusation was laid out:

Agriculture is the heart of California’s worsening water crisis, and the stakes extend far beyond the state’s borders. Not only is California the world’s eighth largest economy, it is an agricultural superpower. It produces roughly half of all the fruits, nuts, and vegetables consumed in the United States — and more than 90 percent of the almonds, tomatoes, strawberries, broccoli and other specialty crops — while exporting vast amounts to China and other overseas customers.

But agriculture consumes a staggering 80 percent of California’s developed water, even as it accounts for only 2 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. Most crops and livestock are produced in the Central Valley, which is, geologically speaking, a desert. The soil is very fertile but crops there can thrive only if massive amounts of irrigation water are applied.

This image of produce farmers profiteering while they use massive amounts of water — the now famous image of each tiny almond requiring over a gallon of water to grow and the generalized notion that farmers are greedy and not contributing to solving this water problem — is a big change for the industry. We always benefited from the fact that farmers were trusted and well thought of by the population. That is why Ocean Spray and Blue Diamond feature farmers in their ads and why industry food safety publicity always features farmers.

To some extent, the industry can address this with an industry PR campaign and should. An almond is tiny. It does not hold a gallon of water — water is put into the ground and replenishes groundwater or gets evaporated and causes rain. There is an important place for the education of consumers and the media here.

The industry can also be more sensitive to the situation. Although many installed drip irrigation and similar systems, there are plenty of fields where you see water flying through the air. Presumably, there is a good reason for this, but it still looks bad for the industry and won’t help with public perception.

Ultimately, if we have to start turning to expensive water sources (such as desalinization), it is unlikely that there will be a long-term consensus to provide inexpensive water for agriculture. So we need to prepare for a future of more expensive water.

The most likely path to success is the development of water-sparing varieties, and the most likely way to go this direction is with genetic technology. UC Davis, several Israeli institutes, and many others have been working on this issue for a long time. They and others would work harder if there was a certain market.

There is, of course, resistance to GMOs. But if we combine this technology with capabilities people are in favor of — say water conservation — there is a much greater likelihood of gaining consumer acceptance.