Thursday, March 18, 2010

Asparagus as a Metaphor for Industrial Decline

California Asparagus Commission © 2010 
Spring heralds the arrival of delicious, tender asparagus on the menu. This year also marks the continuing decline of the US asparagus crop.

According to the California Asparagus Commission executive director Cherie Watte Angulo, as quoted in the Los Angles Times, California has only 11,500 acres of asparagus under cultivation, down from 40,900 acres in 2000. Twenty years ago California held 62% of the US market share, but that is down to just 10% today. Asparagus is a particularly labor intensive crop that does not lend itself to automated harvesting, sorting and packing so Mexico and Peru, with their comparatively low labor costs, have come to dominate the US market.

To put this in perspective, lets look at the well known decline of textiles and apparel in the US. Over the past 20 years employment in the US textile and apparel manufacturing industries has declined at a 7% and 8% compound annual rate, respectively, according to data from the US Department of Labor.  The market share  for US grown asparagus actually declined more rapidly at a 9% annual rate over the same period. I know looking at changes in employment and market share is a bit of an apples to oranges (pardon the pun) comparison, but it is a reasonable proxy to frame the magnitude of the asparagus decline.

In a future post I will look at additional agricultural sectors to see if asparagus represents an isolated case or is part of a larger trend. As to why we should care where our food comes from, I can think of no better source than Michael Pollan, the acclaimed author of The Omnivore's Dilemma which examined the social, ethical, and environmental impact of food.

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