A. G. Kawamura: “Food is a privilege, not a right”

Berkeley Bowl Oct 2013 #3
The Berkeley Bowl (Maven)

A. G. Kawamura is owner and partner of Orange County Produce, LLC, and a board member of Western Growers Association. He recently spoke at a TEDx Orange Coast Conference. Here’s what he had to say:

AGKawamuraWhen it comes to food and agriculture in this country, there are a lot of critics. And the critics say that the food system is broken, and in order to fix it, they say we should change our diets, change the way we eat, change what we eat, and even change how we produce what we eat. And as a farmer, I have to disagree respectfully, because I see it a different way.

In fact, I see that our national food system has been delivering more abundance to more people than has ever been on the planet. It’s an amazing system of abundance that we have to work with, but the challenges of having and living in a world of abundance is that there’s a disconnect. What happens is that oftentimes, we forget where that food comes from while we’re busy dealing with our preferences of what we want. In that disconnect, I think there’s a big challenge; something broken there.

Image from page 136 of "The farmer's boy" (1907)
Image from page 136 of “The farmer’s boy” (1907)

In fact, somewhere between the generations of our parents and grandparents, there was a loss of connection to the land. Our ancestors grew up 100 years ago. If you can believe this, 40% of the American population one hundred years ago was engaged in agriculture. 40%. And most of the families in this nation also had gardens to get them through the lean times of the depression and of two world wars. It was because of that hard earned lesson that they realized that the very real, very stark reality of scarcity made it easy for them to understand that food is not some right; it’s a hard earned privilege, and that we recognize that as this moves forward in our world, that we’re struggling to understand how are we going to feed an amazing planet.

If you go thousands of years ago, back to the Mesopotamians, all the way up to the Mayans and other cultures, those cultures actually believed that a collapse of their food supply meant that the Gods were angry, and that some angry God needed to be appeased with some sacrifice of a prized animal or a maiden. Of course, we wouldn’t allow that today, but what happens is that in that description of what happens, they had tremendous vulnerability.

“It was in the 1930s that scientists working hard, realized that a huge dust storm in Africa would pick up the soil and in the soil there would be fungal spores of pathogens like wheat rust or blight. Storms would pick those dust spores up and put them into the atmosphere, and dump them on the continents of Europe, of Asia, of North America. Those spores would cause a catastrophic disease crop outbreak, and in that collapse, people would wonder why.

Those scientists were struggling to understand, in this century … this was in the 30s and 40s – they were struggling to find the solutions. Luckily with the advance of science and technologies, we were able to identify where these threats are to our ability to survive and how to deal with them. Those scientists were working against the clock in those days, just in the last century, to fend off a famine that they knew would be happening. They were finding disease-resistant varieties of wheat that could and did save literally millions of people. It’s the first time in the history of mankind that the science and the technology was moving forward fast enough that we could understand and more importantly prepare for these different kinds of threats in our food system.

Amy's Organic Garden owner Amy Hicks; USDA Photos
Amy’s Organic Garden owner Amy Hicks; (USDA)

And with that new technology, we got very excited and we are very excited about this sudden capacity and just his last half a century to be able to feed the planet. Today, it’s amazing but yes we can feed the entire planet. We have the capacity to feed the planet, but we don’t necessarily have the will to do so. Governments and not so civil societies are making hard to make that happen.

The tragic thing though is that we have the ability to provide a healthy balanced diet for every single human on the planet today, and yet it still has not happened. We have to wonder why … this is the dialog with a lot of the agricultural ministries around the world is as we are looking forward and the population of the world is going to go from 7 billion people to 10 billion people on the planet, we’re wondering how we’re going to keep the capacity to feed all those folks.

What’s exciting, and this is what my speech is about is today, is the past is here and we are moving now into a new generation of solutions for agriculture – a new age, a new era. What’s exciting about that is that there are challenges that we’re going to face.

This last week, we had flash floods and giant waves that were generated by three near-miss hurricanes. The last hurricane to hit Southern California was in September of 1939 and there was no warning. We had a huge ag economy here and most of it went underwater. There were no satellite-assisted weather channels; in fact there was no TV. Yet today, whether you’re a farmer in Orange County or you’re a farmer in Rwanda, you can pick up your smart phone and monitor what’s happening with that dust storm or what’s going on with that approaching hurricane, and in real time you are able to make adjustments to try and save your crop. That’s adaptation to a new degree. What’s exciting is that we’re using new technologies and we’re using the combination of imagination and creative thinking to pull together and come up with a new solution set of how we might meet these challenges in the future.

I’m amazed that every day on my own farms, I’m finding new things, whether it’s on the internet, any source that I have, brand new sources of information to increase the production, the reliability and the sustainability of my farms. It’s an exciting time. I think it’s an unprecedented time where so much information is becoming available to all of us. What’ s happening is the information that’s captured in these areas of water, of energy, of food – those are converging together at a time that allows us then to have a new box of solutions, a new tool box if you will.

Hydroponic system (Wikimedia)

In that new tool box, we can recognize that yes, we have huge areas that are going to have to still be farmland and produce and enormous amount of food on the planet, but what’s exciting is there’s a new explosion of food systems and ways to produce food that’s taking place. Whether it’s on roof tops, or whether it’s in the deserts, whether it’s under oceans, whether it’s in your park next door or your school or an abandoned warehouse center, or in space with exploration, it’s exciting. These new ways of producing food are showing up at just the right time, and what’s exciting about that is the technologies as they merge together are able to give us a whole new way of looking, a whole new way of visioning our world up ahead of us.

These days, it doesn’t matter where you are, in any climate, in any place, in anywhere – you can produce certain kinds of foods in environments where if you provide water, nutrients, and light, you can produce all kinds of things. In fact, we have the American marijuana growers to applaud and thank for perfecting closed hydroponic systems.

Greenhouse gardening (Wikimedia)

The remarkable results of soilless farming – those are some of the things that are happening in our world. We can see that with aquaponics, you can bring plants and fish together to live symbiotically. It’s exciting because it can be in a modified aquarium that might be in your backyard so the food comes right to your table, or it can be in commercial systems. What we’re seeing then is this new convergence of technologies and systems that can be brought into play. So much of these systems are dependent on the advances in water and advances in new renewable energy which makes it cheap, and also in the digital controls that help make these systems easy to monitor and work with.

When we talk about water, water is still at the center of all agriculture. I know right now we must invest in our state and in our national infrastructure for water. It’s dilapidated, it’s failing, but we have to have water, and that investment has never been more important. Yet, I think it’s really important to see and understand and more importantly explore these concepts and intriguing new ways of bringing an abundance of different kinds of water sources to the forefront and let us use them.

The idea that this planet doesn’t have enough fresh water; we hear that and we’ve seen that, but I tell you what. Our planet has a tremendous amount of water. It’s in the oceans, it falls as rainfall, it’s in the atmosphere as humidity, and also, because we all do it every day, it’s a resource that we just flush down the toilet or we wash with. As we look at water on this planet, what’s exciting is that we all understand that maybe it’s not so much that we have a shortage of water, but we have a salt problem. We have a lot of water and we’re looking forward to the day very shortly where because you can bring low cost renewable energy together with desalination and we are going to see tremendous advances with desalination and water that will become available.

Here in Southern California, our water district up here that deals with sanitation and treatment is actually one of the global leaders with developing and cleaning up our sewer water and making it available, not only for irrigation but for recharging aquifers. We’re global leaders here with that activity.

512px-Rainwater_harvesting_system.svgWater is so available, it’s in the environment. As you know the atmosphere is full of water and actually today they have wonderful very efficient humidifiers that can pull water and moisture out of the atmosphere, clean it up with carbon filters and with ultraviolet lights, so that it’s pure. One of the interesting strategies that is playing out right now, it’s kind of a dilution is a solution strategy, is that you take water that’s pure and you mix it with mineral-rich ocean water at just the right amounts, and that may be the future water supply for every household and every small farm on the planet. These exciting new technologies then give us a new way to think creatively, use our imagination along with creative thinking then to come up with a solution set that is second to none and where we need to go.

I always talk about water storage … you wonder how is it that we don’t allow rainwater when it falls to be collected in a more efficient way. Some places on the planet do but not here. We need to collect water, whether it’s in cisterns underneath our homes, whether it’s in the walls of our houses that we can design so that they hold water. I’ve always wondered why don’t we collect tremendous amounts of freshwater, runoff water, and store it out in the ocean, kind of like a balloon in a swimming pool. All we’re waiting for are the kind of engineers that will say we can do that, instead of the naysayers that say no that’s not possible, but think about the tremendous amount of freshwater we can store if we go down these paths.

Antelope Valley Wind Farm #10
Antelope Valley wind farm (Maven)

Energy is as abundant as water actually if we want to believe in it, and what we have are solar farms and wind farms – we have a whole new set of energy coming and maturing at this time. Hydrogen fuel cells are emerging everywhere, on our streets and our cars. Just up the road here, that same sewage treatment plant has human poop being digested to create hydrogen to drive fuel cells that clean up the sewer water. Just up in Ventura County, we have the largest onion processing facility in the world digesting it’s onion peels for hydrogen to run the power plant of their processing facility, and so we’re looking at these great investments and inventions that create abundance, and we’re not looking at strategies of scarcity for where we need to go in the future.

I look at land differently today. I’m a farmer here in Southern California that does not own the land that I farm on. I lease properties from cities, from willing landlords, from military, I farm underneath the power lines, and I look differently today at vacant lots, at abandoned warehouse centers, at abandoned airports, and I find that you can farm and grow an amazing amount of products in many places that you never would have thought so. In fact, I like to say that as an urban landscaper, the excitement of producing food in new places has just never been more available for many. In Orange County, I have a hard time finding 40 acres of good farmland to farm on. It’s staggering. In the city of Detroit, there’s 40 square miles of abandoned properties that could be repurposed and farmed in one way or another.

We’re looking again at solution sets that will help us move forward. This is a renaissance we’re in; the renaissance of agriculture production is taking place and it’s amazing because it’s strengthening the backbone of our national food systems. There are these many different kinds of agricultural systems out there, and they create then a pattern of diverse, different kinds of agriculture that are available for us to be more resilient, more dependable, and more bulletproof.

Urban agriculture
Urban agriculture (Wikimedia)

As we look at this decision that we must invent and invest in systems of abundance and not scarcity, I can tell you that this is the challenge for us. I think I started by saying that we recognize that to have the capacity to feed a world of 10 billion people and that is not any small task. We have to make sure we understand the difference that feeding the people all the time is not the same as producing the food enough to feed the people; that disconnect is where we really have to put focus on where we’re headed and what’s available to us to get to this point in the future so that farmers like us can get started on the future and getting prepared for where we want to be.

We need farmers and new agriculturalists if you will that will take up the task of creating abundance on the planet and providing a cornucopia of choices for us to work with. We need farmers to invest in their own new technologies, and we need investment in the infrastructure that allows agriculture to be on the planet. We also need to show that the public has this keen understanding that they are stakeholders in supporting this ten thousand year old endeavor which is taking life systems and resources and sustainably managing them to bring us abundance so we can survive, and not only survive, but thrive.

Lastly, I’d like to say that it’s been my dream and goal in my life to live and to wait and work towards the day where everyone on the planet has enough to eat, whether it was for a day or a week or a month. And when that tipping point is accomplished, our world will be forever changed, because it will signify a time when global politics, global policy, science and technology were finally aligned together towards a common purpose of global good.

“I pray that we can work together to make that happen.”

Happy Thanksgiving

Click here to watch Mr. Kawamura’s TEDx presentation on YouTube.

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