In recent years, Americans have become increasingly interested in where their food comes from. Twitter is inundated with photos of fruits and vegetables accompanied by hashtags such as #EatLocal and #CleanEating. Trendy restaurants now boast their farm-to-table menus, while young Americans flock to farmers markets for weekend outings.
Despite this renewed regard for healthy eating, the reality is that the majority of Americans have little understanding of where their food is grown and what it actually takes to get produce from the farm to their grocery store.
California, especially the Central Valley, is one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions. The state’s diverse agricultural economy is a $35 billion industry that produces more than 400 differetn commodities.
Furthermore, international agricultural trade is a multibillion-dollar industry, with last year’s exports reaching $137 billion. Today, California produces more than 12 percent of all nationwide agricultural exports and 30 percent of all dairy exports.
California alone produces more than half of our nation’s fruits and vegetables. Without California’s farms, there are products that the rest of the nation would have almost no access to. The Golden State grows 100 percent of domestically produced pomegranates, 97 percent of kiwi fruits, 96 percent of olives, 90 percent of avocados — the list goes on and on.
Fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products from California, and across the entire country, require substantial manual labor. It is estimated that the agriculture community will be responsible for feeding 9 billion people by 2050. For these individuals, immigration reform is not a political issue; it is a mathematical dilemma. Despite stereotypes, immigrant workers who make it possible to produce our highest-value agricultural crops and products are not “cheap labor”; they are the only staffing option for thousands of farmers across the country.
Without immigrant workers, California’s farms would cease to produce such high-value crops, and the negative impacts would be felt across the nation and the world. In 2008, immigrant workers supported the California economy by adding $492 billion to the state’s gross domestic product. The undocumented workforce alone added $158 billion. In that same year, total output of the immigrant population in California amounted to $900 billion.
Our country must reform our broken immigration system to provide our farmers and ranchers with the trained, reliable and legal workforce they require. We must put in place a worker visa program that provides our agriculture industry with the resources they need. Agriculture provisions of any reform legislation must take into consideration the needs of both year-round and seasonal crops and also put in place a flexible visa cap to ensure labor needs are met.
Without these reforms to our nation’s immigration system, Americans everywhere will feel the consequences. Less and less fruit, vegetables and milk will be grown close to home. More importantly, the cost of these goods will rise, making it even more difficult for parents to feed their families or for schools to provide children with nutritious meals. More dairy and produce will be imported, many times from countries that do not have the same safeguards in place. As America is forced to increase dependency on foreign food supplies, and we import more and export less, our national economy will undoubtedly suffer greatly as a result. Every farm worker tending specialty crops or livestock supports two to three farm-dependent jobs in our economy. As we export our agriculture industries, we export American jobs.
The debate regarding comprehensive reform is a complicated one. Reforming our nation’s immigration system is a massive undertaking that should be carefully examined. It is clear that the cost of inaction is far too great. We must act now to protect America’s breadbasket.