California is called the golden state, named for the gold trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains that drew desperate men like flies. Later, when the dream of easy wealth dried up, those same men moved to California’s Central Valley and planted wheat—acres and acres of it; a different kind of gold. It turned out that California’s true wealth was in its soils, not in its precious metals.
How do those soils fare today? Agricultural production has long served as a proxy for soil health, but it is an inaccurate proxy. Because top soil takes hundreds of years to form, and erodes faster than the lifespan of civilizations but slower than the human lifespan, it is not the most immediate limiting factor upon agriculture nor the most visible. This is especially true in California, where a fluctuating water supply dictates what and how much farmers can grow.
Moreover, California’s agriculture still flourishes, at least superficially. California remains the leading agricultural production state in the nation in terms of both value and crop diversity. The counties within the San Joaquin Valley produce more food than any other comparably sized region in the world. No other state, or combination of states, matches California’s productivity per hectare. Stunning achievements all, but the continuing productivity of California’s agricultural sector has more to do with the Green Revolution’s miraculous technological trifecta: chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and controlled water supply than with the health of the State’s soils.
Danika Desai. Managing Editor, UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy.
This post is part of the Environmental Law Review Syndicate.