Ed note: The following is the second in a three-part series of Op-Eds. Read part 1 here.
OPINION — We need to envision agriculture through a new lens. Technology has come a long way in this industry. So much has changed!
Most people will think of agriculture as fields of alfalfa or corn. Or, perhaps, large acreage dedicated to a crop or fruit orchards in open fields. We also typically think of the liberal use of water to keep the crops growing. As a result, we certainly do not think that Southern Utah can be viewed as an area with significant agricultural potential. Besides, with very few exceptions, we can continue to rely upon agricultural production elsewhere and upon the requisite trucking to bring us the foods and fresh produce we want to consume. Or can we?
What if these common perceptions are incorrect? What if we begin to see rising food prices, food shortages and disruptions in the food supply chain (e.g., strikes, natural disasters, continued drought in California, software hacks a la Colonial Pipeline, et cetera)? Some may say these scenarios are alarmist and therefore deserve to be dismissed. It is, after all, a common practice to kick the can down the road until the need becomes acute.
But is this really wise? What if we could grow the essential fresh food that we would need so we are much less vulnerable to negative developments outside our control? And, what if we even had surplus for the poor and for income generation elsewhere? Would this not become the provident choice? Would this not create self-sufficiency? Would we not be taking care of our own?
Let’s further our discussion with a few definitions of terms:
- Food desert: an area that offers limited access to affordable and nutritious food.
Already, Utah is suffering from rural and urban food deserts; some 50 food deserts, at least. In fact, roughly 20% of the US population live in a food desert. Even if food does exist in some relatively nearby store, it is insufficient to meet community needs and it is likely mostly processed food which, over time, causes a multitude of health related issues.
- Food oasis: an area with close access to supermarkets with fresh foods. This concept is related to “food security,” a global term that relates to all people having access to affordable and nutritious food.
Washington County would currently be labeled as a food oasis. We have sufficient grocery stores stocked with all the food items we need. However, we need only recall the recent COVID-19 related behavior when food and fresh produce soon disappeared to create empty shelves. In just a few days Washington County could literally become a food desert if shipments stopped or were significantly curtailed. What if this continued for weeks or longer? The Utah Legislature recently approved funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to create more Food Banks in the state. This allocation of funds is laudable; however, it begs the question as to where this food is going to come from? Likely not from Utah.
As it is, Utah only produces 2-3% of all fruits and vegetables consumed in the state. With no Utah-based solution, we are essentially creating even more dependence on sources outside our control. And that source is largely California. It is by far the largest producer of agricultural products in the US, while Utah ranks 37th (Hay being Utah’s largest crop principally produced for Utah, California and even China). We also export beef and hogs to China.
California’s production and proximity make us highly dependent upon it for the availability, cost, quality and selection of the food, including fresh produce, available here.
Clearly, our food supply chain is threatened given California’s challenges. This isn’t alarmist; this is fact. Rising prices, limited selection, poor quality, shipment delays and more are possible, at the very least. There is much to consider.
In the final installment of this Op-Ed series, we will propose a variety of solutions for consideration by the public and our policy makers at the city and county levels. These solutions will focus on sustainable agriculture for two reasons. First, a new thought paradigm around agriculture is needed if we are going to reduce our risk of becoming a food desert. Secondly, based upon my meetings with a very capable and forthcoming official at the Washington County Water Conservancy District, the district is an invaluable resource in a variety of ways. Ultimately, it is up to us and our local leaders to closely engage with these and other leading experts to jointly develop steps to address our acute water and food issues.
Submitted by DAVID C. HATCH, Ivins. Hatch is a former presidential appointee to the USDA serving as associate administrator for the multibillion dollar U.S. crop and livestock insurance program. He is also a hemispheric expert on agricultural risk management and has consulted extensively with virtually every country in the hemisphere including ambassadors, ministers, scientists, the U.S. State Department and the World Bank to create science-based agricultural policy for small- and mid-sized farmers, including women. Prior to his public sector service, Hatch was an entrepreneur and executive in the global risk management field. Hatch would like to thank Tony McCammon of Bloom Horticulture for his contribution to this series.
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