Self-help needed for export growth

California agricultural exports will expand if the industry continues development of self-help programs that work to solve potential food and fiber-related issues. If the agricultural sector instead chooses a ‘head in the sand' mentality, groups with an anti-agriculture vision will chart a new course destined to shrink export opportunities, according to attorney George Soares, managing partner in the firm Kahn, Soares & Conway LLP.

“When three people die and two hundred get sick because they consumed spinach produced by California agriculture, that's a problem. We could be in denial and say that we have done everything imaginable to get it right. The reality is three people died and two hundred got sick,” Soares said. “This will lead to more laws and regulations. It's inevitable.”

Soares, a Hanford, Calif., dairyman, said Golden State agriculture in the past has been more comfortable striking a reactive pose to issues versus a proactive stance. “I think we have to be better on the other end. It will make a difference for us long term.”

“The farmer with their head in the sand is the farmer who is in big trouble and we have to do something about it as an industry,” he noted. “None of us, regardless of where we are in the food chain, can afford to have our head buried in the sand. I encourage pest control advisors to serve as catalysts with growers and others in a proactive self-help process.”

The spinach issue was one of several examples that the agricultural attorney cited to command agriculture's need for planning and execution to keep California's $33 billion agricultural industry on track. Soares provided the reality check during the 32nd annual California Association of Pest Control Advisors Annual Conference and Agri-Expo on Oct. 22-24, in Anaheim, Calif.

Soares dished up accolades to California's rice industry for developing monumental legislation passed six years ago establishing state rice-growing standards. If a new rice grower wants to grow product in California of any kind, it will be based on a thorough review process involving the entire process of growing, harvesting and milling rice.

“People said the law couldn't be done, government said it couldn't be done and it would be unconstitutional. The law is in place and it's working,” Soares said. “The rice industry decided that self-help would be an integral component of its future.”

He called the legislation “the first line of defense” against the current genetically modified organism contamination issue that occurred late this summer when U.S. commercial supplies of long-grain rice inadvertently were contaminated with a genetically engineered variety not approved for human consumption. The new law on the books is being touted to the Japanese as insurance against any fears about the quality of California grown rice.

“We (California) have a $200 million rice export rice market today and much of it goes to Asia. This is in jeopardy because of a mistake (rice contamination) by someone in Arkansas,” he said. “The Japanese don't care as they don't want our rice anyway. If we don't have a body of law that demonstrates convincingly that our rice doesn't meet their standards, our $200 million rice industry is in trouble.”

Soares predicted each of the 350 farm commodities grown in California would eventually face an issue involving a lawsuit.

He lauded the fresh tomato industry for its leading advances in the pursuit of food safety legislation. The group is reading the handwriting on the wall, noted Soares, and is drafting a body of law to require more stringent growing practices and a review of processing standards.

“In the business of agriculture, you're going to see more of this,” said Soares who is also a partner in the consulting firm Environmental Solutions Group LLC. “You can't have deaths, hundreds get sick and have political figures say it was an accident. It was an accident but that's beside the point when you get to that extreme.”

He predicted more commodity groups would follow the tomato industry's example. “They have no choice. The public will demand it.”

Soares worked during college and afterwards in the agricultural pest control field, positions today called PCAs. He dolled out kudos to the professionals, calling them vital linchpins with an invaluable knowledge base to further improvements in agriculture.

“The PCAs who work with the vegetable industry know what needs to be done. Instead of decisions being made in a vacuum, the role of the PCA is critically important — to advise the farmer and others about any shortcomings,” Soares said. “The traceability of crops that PCAs advise on is part of agriculture's collective future. This will put more pressure on PCAs, the farmer and the entire food chain. Even if government doesn't demand it, consumers are. That determines the right and wrong.”

Another self-help legal challenge facing farmers involves protecting personal identity. He referenced the irrigated lands program where farmers were historically exempt from water quality standards. When the exemption was removed a few years ago, Soares said it raised red flags and posed the question if government might desire a list of all farmers including addresses, phone numbers and parcel numbers.

Imagine if that information was posted on the Internet, he pointed out. Government has the right to know if farmers are in compliance but information should not be gleaned if it can jeopardize the security of the operation.

“There is a fight going on in America over this issue,” Soares noted. “You can see with such information readily available how people with a different mindset might create problems that farmers don't deserve. If the names were released, there is the potential for litigation. And if you talk about challenges for agricultural exports, the challenge starts with something that basic.”

Soares heralded the establishment of the Air Coalition Team in the Central Valley, an organization comprised of about 20 agriculture and related organizations that are using self-help mentality to impact agriculture's future. In the past, agriculture stood outside the door while environmental lawsuit plaintiffs and government leaders hammered out legal differences on issues with an impact on agriculture.

Today, the coalition team has a seat at the negotiation table. The self-help is resulting in a heard agricultural voice.

“The Air Coalition Team has decided to start intervening. Agriculture is going to become a party to the case so discussions on the table will feature industry, environmental plaintiffs and government,” Soares said. “From that we will try to work out a settlement that works for everybody. Agriculture needs to be a part of that. It is part of our defense and solution.”

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