The state's environmental and agribusiness interests, traditionally bitter political foes, are searching for common ground on issues such as land use, pesticide practices, air pollution and water quality in the decade ahead.
The animosity between the growers and conservationists has reached a peak in recent years, what with the 1986 passage of Proposition 65 and its attendant cancer warnings, the Alar controversy of 1989 and a virtually constant debate over pesticide residues in food.
But at a produce industry conference last week in Newport Beach, leaders of both the Sierra Club and the California Farm Bureau--two decidedly dissimilar organizations--said the two groups should spend more time on areas of agreement and less on "name calling."
Such agreement, even if superficial, is unusual, particularly on the eve of Tuesday's election, when voters will be asked to decide on competing ballot measures--environmentalist-sponsored Proposition 128 (the "Big Green" initiative) or the food-industry-sponsored Proposition 135 (the so-called "Careful" initiative).
Both measures deal extensively with the state's pesticide regulations.
Proposition 128, among other things, would ban outright 19 farm chemicals because of carcinogenic or mutagenic evidence. It would also mandate a scientific review of dozens of other suspect agricultural compounds for similar toxicity and possible ban.
Food industry interests claim Proposition 128 would raise food prices by as much as 30%. Supporters of the initiative dismiss such statements as false.
On the other end of the spectrum, Proposition 135 would take a more cautious approach to regulating such chemicals. Favored by farm interests, the initiative would double the number of food samples tested for pesticide residues in California and fund development of improved testing methods. It would also establish provisions for banning unsafe pesticides, but only after a "comprehensive" review of scientific data by an advisory panel.
Environmentalists claim Proposition 135 will result in higher taxes and dilute current pesticides laws. Supporters of the initiative state that the measure offers true farm chemical reform and creates a new state agency for food safety to implement such change.
The advertisements and campaign literature for the competing propositions seem to indicate that the strains between environmentalists and agriculture are irreparable. Yet, attendees of the Western Growers Assn. annual meeting heard otherwise.
"We want a part in charting the new decade," said Bob Vice, California Farm Bureau president. "We need to align ourselves with other groups and, yes, that includes the environmentalists. After all, who is more concerned about the environment than farmers?"
Vice, who chairs the "Yes on 135" committee, said that the agriculture sector comprises only 2% of this state's population and that future coalitions are essential. (On the other hand, California's food industry constitutes the largest segment of the state's economy, according to various estimates, and carries considerable financial clout.)
Vice conceded that agriculture needs to "change" its approach to farming as well as how it works with other special-interest groups.
"We need to change our attitudes about how we look at environmental issues. Agriculture must improve its image with environmentalists and the public," Vice said. "We are using 50% less pesticides on my ranch than 10 years ago and we are not getting that kind of information out. Growers are looking for ways to use fewer chemicals."
The Sierra Club's state director, Mike Paparian, also had conciliatory words. "We have common concerns and they can come together in the 1990s," he said. "Environmentalists and agriculture need to work more closely than is the case today."
One area where Paparian believes there should be more cooperation is on the volatile issue of pesticides.
"Beyond the ballot initiatives, the interests of farmers and environmentalists should converge on pesticide issues," he said. "If there are (health) problems with pesticides then it will show up in (the farmer's) family and in (his/her) drinking water before it is evident in the urban population. (Growers) are on the front lines of pesticide issues."
Vice said that growers may never be able to satisfy certain environmentalists on the pesticide question but that other issues--such as water conservation--might find more agreement.
Both Vice and Paparian pointed to the California Legislature's recent passage of an extensive organic foods labeling act as an area of mutual concern. The bill, which was signed by Gov. George Deukmejian, received broad support, including some from conservative farm groups.
"I'm sure the environmentalists were surprised that the Western Growers Assn. and other ag groups supported the organic farming bill," Vice said. "But it was an area that was of some benefit to our members."
It is unclear if this meeting was a breakthrough in relations or whether the kind words were only for the benefit of the audience. What is certain is that the seminar, "The Environmental Challenge--Rough Seas Ahead," was appropriately titled.