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Food a national security issue: CG&TFL chief

The nation's food supply is no less a security concern than oil, but it will take a determined effort by agriculture to persuade state and federal government, as well as citizens, to accept the fact.

Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, supported that position in remarks at a recent educational symposium held by the California Tree Fruit Agreement in Fresno.

“If we don't start giving our producers the resources for a domestic food supply, we are going to find ourselves in the same position with food as we are with oil,” he warned.

But he also stressed his group and others will not give up and will work to capitalize on the positives of wholesome, safe fruit and vegetables from the most productive area in the world.

Bedwell detailed a number of current issues that bear heavily on the continued supply of safe, nutritious foods for both domestic and foreign markets.

He cited several priorities assigned by his organization, which represents about 85 percent of the volume of fresh market table grapes and deciduous tree fruit produced in California.

At the top of the Fresno-based league's list is availability of a legal work force. Resolution of federal immigration reform, Bedwell said, is not likely to come this year. Ag/JOBS, or Senate Bill 340, was introduced last year and sought to address the problem but failed. Nevertheless, the league is dedicated to “keep it on the front burner” for passage.

On farm labor wages, Bedwell said if agriculture depended solely on American labor, rates would be between $20 and $25 per hour, which would double, or perhaps triple, food costs to consumers. Adjusted rates for farm labor presently average about $10 per hour, he added.

Loss of foreign workers, he continued, would only lead to outsourcing food from markets abroad. “Consumers have to understand we must either out-source our labor or outsource our food. If we want to keep an American way of life, we'd better have a domestic food supply.”

Water supply and quality remain contentious issues but will hopefully be on the November state ballot. Noting that “dam has become a dirty word,” Bedwell said if the San Joaquin River is restored to its natural state, additional waterways will be required or the East Side of the San Joaquin Valley will be put out of business.

State water quality regulators are concerned not only about tainted run-off but also “a soup” of stationary nitrate and salt contaminants in groundwater supplies, increasingly being considered a public resource, beneath the Central Valley.

Air quality regulations have become more complicated with “unintended consequences,” he said. State law in 2007 prohibited burning of waste from tree fruit orchards. However, when economics dictated orchard removals, biomass facilities were unable to accommodate the volume of material. As a result, air-quality authorities were forced to grant 90-day waivers to allow burning in fields.

Another complaint of the league is proposed air resources board regulations for on-road diesel trucks, which would theoretically require equipment modernization twice in a nine-year period.

Condemning the provisions as “bordering on unbelievable” and “arrogant thinking by government,” Bedwell said they seek truck updates first to 2007 or later standards by 2010 and then again to 2010 or later technology by 2019.

Bedwell predicted more controversy about AB 32, the state legislation on global warming and carbon footprints. One source of contention is defining the carbon footprint for a California vineyard. Some environmental interests, he said, want to consider even the mining of metal used for a tractor as part of the footprint.

The imposition of new regulations for volatile organic compounds has been severe for farm operations such as strawberries in Ventura County, which after expanding acreage for the crop a few years ago must now face a reduction in acres because of prohibition of use of essential fumigants. “It doesn't seem fair, but it's a reality.”

Among other continuing challenges, Bedwell said, many of the new, reduced risk pesticides do not provide efficacy consistent with requirements of export markets.

“Forty percent of our California table grape production and about 25 percent of our tree fruit are exported. We have to maintain those markets in a very competitive worldwide environment. We are telling regulators that we need to maintain a toolbox (of pesticides) that allows us to compete.”

Food safety, an issue with intense interest across the nation, is the subject of much new proposed legislation. Bedwell said he expects much attention to regulations this year as grocery industries and others apply pressure to legislators. The league, he added, is insisting that regulations must be “commodity specific and with risk-based analysis.”

On the California scene, efforts by governmental agencies to control the light brown apple moth, an invasive pest from Australia, in coastal counties has sparked public outcry and submission of four bills in the state legislature.

After the moth was discovered in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, the state mounted a pheromone spray program to confuse and disrupt the insect's mating. Outraged citizens claimed illnesses from exposure to the spray material.

The danger to California fruit industries is a statewide quarantine if the pest is not controlled. “It's frightening, but it is real,” Bedwell said. He called for agriculture to write letters to legislators in support of the spray program.

In these times of multiple definitions of “sustainability” in agriculture, Bedwell said the league wants to see three components included in a definition: environmentally friendly, socially responsible, and economically viable.

In a marketing presentation, Don Harris, director of wholesale sales, Naturipe Farms, Naples, Fla., said one obstacle to the California fresh fruit industry is that too many consumers across the U.S. do not realize that individual growers, not massive corporate farms, make up the industry.

Harris urged growers to remember that taste of the fruit brings customers back and builds their trust, as well as sales.

Consumers, time-starved in their shopping, are looking for new foods for quick and easy preparation of meals, and salads have fueled the success of cut vegetables. Harris predicted that bagged, cut fruit will be the next revolution, and flavor, freshness, and a healthy image will be vital.

Retailers attuned to this are rearranging produce displays in novel combinations, such as tangerines and pomegranates, or in different locations in the store to attract buyers. “They go back to the same store but see a change, a new experience, inside,” he said.

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