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San Diegans Buy Imported Oranges

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GLORIA PENNER (Host): San Diego County has the sixteenth largest agricultural economy in the United States. The region’s growers earn nearly $175 million dollars on oranges and avocados alone. What may surprise you is that in spite of the bounty of local produce, many San Diegans buy oranges and avocados imported from other countries. As part of our Envision San Diego series on food, KPBS investigative reporter, Amita Sharma, has been looking into local agriculture. She joins me now to explain. Welcome, Amita. AMITA SHARMA (KPBS News): Thank you. PENNER: So you’ve spent some time looking into the oranges grown in San Diego County. What did you find about why San Diegans don’t eat the oranges that are grown here? SHARMA: Well, we the consumers prefer that our oranges be bright orange. We like them to be easy to peel, so they should have thicker skin, and we don’t like seeds. San Diego oranges, they’re orange, but they have a greenish tinge to them. They have a thinner skin so it takes more effort to peel and, well, they have seeds. PENNER: That is so interesting. I never even thought about that. I have to look at my oranges. So where are most of our oranges going if we’re not eating them? Where are they going? SHARMA: Well this is where the story gets interesting, Gloria. It turns out that San Diego oranges are held in very high esteem all around the world. They’re considered to be some of the tastiest. So our oranges are being shipped out to India, China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and countries in the Middle East. Meanwhile, here in San Diego depending on the season, our oranges are coming form Australia. They’re coming from Brazil. They’re coming from South Africa. They’re coming from Peru. PENNER: What does this all mean for the local growers? I mean, how does this impact if we’re eating oranges from elsewhere? SHARMA: Well it thins their profits. PENNER: Oh, sure. It would. Well you talked to Eric Larson of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, and here’s what he had to say about the local impact. ERIC LARSON (Executive Director, SD County Farm Bureau): If a grower can sell locally and take advantage of this, the three million people we have in San Diego County, the chances are they might have a better shot at getting all of the food dollar. If a farmer ships out of the area and goes to a traditional packinghouse, they’re only going to get 19-20% of the food dollar. If it stays local and takes some of those middlemen out of the equation, they might be able to get a better price for the product they sell but it’s a more difficult way to market your product. PENNER: So price aside, what about the environmental impact of exporting and importing so much of the product? SHARMA: Well it’s leaving a carbon footprint, and the California Citrus Mutual right now is studying just how big of a carbon footprint that is. PENNER: And? I mean did they expect it to be really big? SHARMA: They don’t know. You know, orange trees are evergreen trees so they absorb a lot of carbon dioxide. But transporting the oranges halfway across the world is going to leave some carbon footprint. They just don’t know how big it is. That study is going to be done in about a year. PENNER: Well I’m just wondering whether this region should continue to produce agricultural products that, first of all, aren’t being eaten here, and secondly, we have this arid climate and we have this unreliable water supply. Maybe it’s time to give up our agricultural thrust. SHARMA: Well that’s an argument that’s been heard before, and certainly escalating water prices are driving some growers out of business. You see dried, shriveled up orange trees dotting the landscape in these counties. Eric Larson put it to me; he said that they look like tree skeletons. But the other argument to be made is that San Diego County does not have a forest and that these orange trees and avocado trees are our forest. That San Diego orange trees, as all orange trees are, they’re evergreens so they soak up and absorb carbon dioxide. As do avocado trees. So if these trees go away, that’s going to affect the quality of the air that we breathe. That will get dirtier. PENNER: That is fascinating. So it certainly has an impact beyond just the eating of the fruit. However, when we look at the high prices involved and what Eric was talking about, could these drive – you know, the high price of water, the high price of not having your produce purchased – could it drive local growers out of business? SHARMA: Yes. So it is driving some local growers, orange growers, out of business. In terms of avocado growers, some of them are transitioning to less water intensive crops like bush berries. GLORIA: I see. Well thank you very much, Amita Sharma. SHARMA: Thank you. GLORIA: A team of KPBS reporters is tracing the food from your dinner plate back to the farm and field and ocean. You can see those reports on our website at kpbs.org/food. The special, Envision San Diego: Food, airs November 16th at 9pm on KPBS television.