Mainstream media lack balance when reporting on agriculture

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we’re back again with a one-sided article from the mainstream media that bashes alfalfa and several other crops. This time, it’s a San Francisco Chronicle article and the environmental organization is the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Last month’s CAFA column reported on a Los Angeles Times article that quoted the Pacific Institute’s president who, among other things, said “almonds are better than alfalfa.” He favored a “reorientation” to replace alfalfa with fruit and nut crops due to the low-value, high water use myth we’ve heard so many times before.

The article in the Chronicle — or the “Comical” as it’s called by some people in the Bay Area — is another example of the uphill battle of educating the public and getting the media to get their facts straight. Our ire is equally divided between the NRDC spokesman and the journalist who seemed all too eager to jump on the environmentalist’s band wagon.

One example is this comment: “the federal government provides subsidies for a range of low-value, water-greedy crops, such as cotton, rice and alfalfa.” Subsidies for alfalfa? When did that happen? The low-value, water-greedy crops statement was followed by this quote from an NRDC senior policy analyst: “You can’t blame them (growers) for accepting federal largesse, but there’s something wrong when we have federal policies that discourage farmers from conserving at a time when they need to be doing more of that.”

We wonder how the senior policy analyst knows that growers aren’t conserving. Maybe junior policy analysts are scouring the state and watching every move, so be careful. Another statement that leaves you wondering where their information comes from is a reference to irresponsibly high deliveries of water. To be fair, however, there was one worthwhile statement in the article. The policy analyst cited the lack of “urban conservation,” which often escapes water use discussions.

What puzzled us the most was the journalist’s failure to balance accusations with a response from the other side. For example, reference was made to environmentalists complaining about “the large portion of California’s available water supply that goes to farmers — some put the figure at nearly 80 percent.” Yet, Mike Wade, of the California Farm Water Coalition’s (CFWC) was interviewed for the article. The CFWC uses California Department of Water Resources estimates that break down developed water, both state and federal. The current figures show that 48 percent of developed water goes to the environment, 41 percent to agriculture and the remaining 11 percent is used by homes and businesses. Those figures weren’t in the article.

Another thorn in our side, of course, is the low value tag for alfalfa. Philip Bowles, CAFA chair, sent a letter to the National Resources Defense Council and pointed out that this year’s alfalfa production in California will top the $1 billion mark. Furthermore, he added, alfalfa is an “essential component of the state’s dairy and beef cow industry,” and the combined farm gate values exceed $7 billion.

It’s tempting to ignore the misinformation being fed to the non-ag media. But, environmental groups have deep pockets and the ear of liberal politicians. The Oakland-based Pacific Institute, for example, reported on its Web site that their president met recently with Nancy Pelosi to discuss California water policy. Now that’s a scary thought and a reason to be proactive.

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