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July 11, 2013

If we didn't have California, what would we eat?

Food scientists at Cornell University have produced a strain of broccoli that thrives in hot environments, which may make it possible for states with stiflingly hot summers to grow the vegetable. California, where cool coastal fog is perfect for growing standard broccoli, currently produces more than 90 percent of the broccoli grown in the United States. If California were to disappear, what would the American diet be like?

Expensive and grainy. California produces a sizable majority of many American fruits, vegetables, and nuts: 99 percent of artichokes, 99 percent of walnuts, 97 percent of kiwis, 97 percent of plums, 95 percent of celery, 95 percent of garlic, 89 percent of cauliflower, 71 percent of spinach, and 69 percent of carrots (and the list goes on and on). Some of this is due to climate and soil. No other state, or even a combination of states, can match California's output per acre. Lemon yields in California, for example, are more than 50 percent higher than in Arizona. California spinach yield per acre is 60 percent higher than the national average. Without California, supply of all these products in the United States and abroad would dip, and in the first few years, a few might be nearly impossible to find. Orchard-based products in particular, such as nuts and some fruits, would take many years to spring back.

Price surges would eventually become the larger issue. Rising prices would force Americans to consume more grains, which are locked in a complicated price-dependent relationship with fresh fruits, vegetables and meats. When the price of produce increases, people eat more grain. When the price of grain drops, people eat more fruits and vegetables. (In fact, in some parts of the world, wheat and rice are the only proven "Giffen goods" - a product in which decreasing prices lead to decreasing demand.) Young people and the poor in America, more than others, eat less fresh food when prices rise.

The loss of California's output would create a dire situation for at least a decade. History suggests, however, that we'd eventually find a way to cope. A state's agricultural makeup can evolve surprisingly quickly - California's certainly did. In the 1860s, the state's leading crops were wheat and corn. Beginning in the 1880s, however, the state ceased to be the nation's breadbasket and became its fruit and vegetable basket. Rail-links made transcontinental food shipments possible. Cities on the Eastern seaboard offered staggeringly high prices for produce. Interest rates dropped from 100 percent during the Gold Rush that began in 1849 to 30 percent in 1860 to 10 percent in the 1890s. This decline afforded California farmers the time to change over to slow-developing crops such as nuts and tree fruits. The land under irrigation grew four-fold from 1889 to 1914. Manufacturers of farm equipment relocated to California and designed equipment specifically for the state's farming conditions, the same way automobile parts suppliers flooded Detroit in the early 20th century and computer engineers moved to Silicon Valley in the 1990s.

If the rest of the nation were to lose California's agricultural riches tomorrow, we might see a similar process begin in other states. Although few states will ever have California's glorious year-round-growing climate, they could easily improve transportation and other infrastructure to increase agricultural efficiency.

          

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