The state’s top agriculture official visited Cal Poly on Friday and spoke about genetically modified organisms, immigration reform, obesity, nutrition and the drought, among other hot topics during a keynote address.
The talk given by Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, highlighted a two-day Resilient Food Systems Conference, which continues today.
In response to a question about whether GMOs should be labeled in food packaging, Ross said she believes that such labeling would serve the public well and that “labeling needs to be as open as it can be.”
But she acknowledged that statewide battles have taken place over the issue and that it remains a controversial topic.
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“I envision the day when you can scan a food item and know how the food was made, where it came from and who made it,” Ross said. “That’s my personal view. I think the consumer can feel disconnected from the farmer. … Let’s make it easy for consumers.”
Ross said immigration reform and a guest-worker program for Mexican nationals would help meet a demand for more farm laborers in California — and reduce the number of crops that aren’t harvested.
A labor shortage was an issue for vegetable farmers in San Luis Obispo County last year, according to the county’s recently released 2014 crop report.
“If the drought weren’t the big story in agriculture, it would be the story of worker shortages,” Ross said.
Ross said she has worked toward creating a more efficient pathway to citizenship and legal status for immigrants for the past 16 years, and that the problem lies with the lack of progress on the issue in Washington, D.C.
A guest-worker program would allow workers to cross the border for work and return home to their residences.
“I’ve said many times, the problem isn’t Sacramento. The problem is Washington,” Ross said.
Asked whether corporations that produce unhealthy foods have caused an obesity problem, Ross said that view was too simplistic.
She said fewer and fewer small farms exist because the work is demanding, and making a living can be difficult in today’s economy, which caters to efficient, convenient foods that don’t require much preparation and cooking.
She advocates for more education on nutrition and better-informed consumers, though she believes progress has been made.
“McDonald’s is struggling right now,” Ross said. “Coco’s and Chili’s and Carrows restaurants have closed near where I live because they haven’t changed with the times.”
Ross promotes programs that educate children about nutrition by teaching them gardening and encouraging them to grow their own foods.
As farming practices evolve with advancements in technology and water-saving irrigation systems, farmers will better conserve water, Ross said.
Communities can best save water by sharing water-conservation resources, including water-recycling plants that treat wastewater. That water can be used for irrigating parks and ornamental plants.
Desalination is still an expensive option, Ross said, but it can be a beneficial supplementary source of water in communities throughout the state.
Ross encouraged students and members of the public alike to involve themselves in local government — especially on city council and planning commission issues.
“It’s good to get to know your local representatives and let them know what’s important to you,” Ross said.