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The shrinking salad bowl: Houses and malls becoming the fastest-growing crop in California

It's almost too late for California to eat local. Even as we rediscover how good tomatoes and cantaloupe taste when they are freshly picked -- if not in our backyard, then in the next valley over -- our state is fast losing its ability to feed itself. But that may not be all bad. We will gain from our loss if the threat of hunger serves to realign our agricultural priorities individually and statewide.

Agricultural census statistics confirm what we all perceive as we watch schools and subdivisions sprout in our lettuce fields, and malls and warehouses move into our pastureland: America's salad bowl is shrinking by the day.

Producing the average American diet requires approximately 1.2 acres of land per person, says David Pimentel, professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. Today, counting all our state's cultivable land (including land currently set aside in conservation programs to reduce soil erosion and preserve wildlife habitats), plus all possible pasture and range land (even that of the most marginal quality), California has only three-quarters of an acre of productive land per Californian.

The average American diet being the super size that it is, maybe three- quarters of an acre is plenty.

But let's take a look at what happens 50 years out, by which time our state's population will have grown to around 55 million, according to estimates by the California Department of Finance. If we don't lose any farm acres, or see the productivity of those acres diminish, we'll be down to less than 1/2 acre per person of land capable of supporting some food production.

One-half acre. Feels pinched. But we might still be OK. In the September/October 2004 issue of World Watch magazine, Pimentel and Anne Wilson reported that China's per-capita cropland stands at approximately 0.2 acre, providing the Chinese people a primarily vegetarian diet.

The problem is, we're unlikely to keep hold of even that half-acre each of vegetables. Farming in California isn't easy. For example, as we become more concerned about water quality and conservation, California farmers must operate within tightening water-use restrictions. As of Jan. 1 of this year, no commercial growers in California's central coast region, which stretches from Santa Barbara County up to San Mateo County, can irrigate their fields unless they have completed 15 hours of water quality education and filed an approved plan with the California Regional Water Quality Control Board detailing how they aim to minimize irrigation runoff on each piece of ground they farm. The farmers must monitor their irrigation discharge levels, and control board officials will inspect whether the irrigation plans are being implemented as the farmers have pledged. Water quality boards in other regions are developing their own sets of water-use requirements for agriculture.

At the same time that the regulatory price farmers pay rises, out-of- pocket costs are increasing as well. Fossil fuels are the key ingredient in synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and the primary source of power for tractors and irrigation pumps. Pimentel and Wilson predict that some time between 2005 and 2010, we will reach our peak year of global oil production. After we pass the peak, a lesser amount of fossil fuels will be available each year. Despite short-term fluctuations, fossil fuels, and with them the price of conventional farm chemicals, will become ever more expensive.

Unless we're willing to pay more for our food, some farmers, especially those who have developers interested in their land, are going to opt out and sell out as the regulatory burdens and cost of farming mount.

Meanwhile, we'll be paving over millions of acres during the next 50 years. Each new baby born or immigrant welcomed needs not only sufficient food, but its share of warehouses, schools and parking lots as well: a share that requires, says Pimentel, one acre of concrete and blacktop per person. If our population and urbanization trends continue, California will have only a tiny sliver of land, less than one-tenth of an acre for each of us, left to grow food on by the year 2055.

I have an outside chance of still being alive then. Barring tragedy, my children most certainly will be. How desperately, I wonder, will I guard my one-tenth acre?

A brief published by the University of California's Agricultural Issues Center in May of 2001 suggests that the argument that "continued urbanization will prevent California from feeding itself" is misconstrued. Most food consumed by Californians, suggests the brief, is brought in from other states and countries.

Unfortunately, worldwide, we're already down to around a half-acre per person, and we'll be operating on half of that half in another 50 years if population growth trends hold true, and assuming no further loss in land productivity. The rest of the world is losing its ability to feed itself at the same time that we here in California are.

So we are now forced to consider the unthinkable, a food crisis at home, in our generation or the next. I'm never one to advocate bringing things to a crisis point. Crises are too tricky; they are moments of opportunity but offer no guarantees. Some individuals use a personal crisis to make life changes, and some commit suicide. Revolutions can overthrow dictatorships, but kill combatants and innocents, fracture families, and co-opt childhoods along the way.

But I do believe that as we get hungry we will be motivated as never before to protect soil fertility and water reserves, and learn to feed ourselves without using fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides. Organic and sustainable farming will no longer be trendy. We will feed ourselves according to our ability to replicate the soil food web's systems of nutrient and carbon cycling and nature's biodiversity, and to learn from long-surviving species.

We will grow more of our own food in home gardens, in empty city lots, in parks and on rooftops. We will honor growers and ranchers, and pay more money for the food we buy. Agricultural land will garner higher prices per acre than developable land. We will covet organic wastes. We will question the diversion of any land grant university dollars away from the central issue of how to feed ourselves within our environmental limits. We will probably eat less and say grace more when we do. We will learn a new balance walking on the edge of hunger.

Deborah Rich is a Monterey writer and olive rancher.

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