new study in the New England Journal of Medicine concludes that reliance on processed rather than fresh foods is having a devastating impact globally on children, showing dramatically increasing body-mass index (BMI) levels in 195 countries, including the United States. The study describes the harmful side effects of obesity, such as heart disease, kidney disease and premature death, and discusses the larger health and economic costs if the obesity rates are not brought under control.

This study brings into sharp focus a major policy dilemma facing California – the apparent conflict between the overriding goal of the state to improve health and nutrition of the population and the policies that reduce the amount of farmland for fresh produce.

Will the reduction in food supply over the next 20 years have a corresponding negative impact on the health of the next generation?  And should the state support policies that increase agricultural production as a means of combating obesity?

To answer those questions, California policymakers must consider the consequences of federal and state water management policies that are shrinking farmland and reducing the amount of water that is available for farming. Those policies not only impact the jobs and economy of farm communities but they also reduce the annual crops, namely fresh fruits and vegetables.

The mission of the Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Branch of the California Department of Public Health is “to create innovative partnerships that empower low-income Californians to increase fruit and vegetable consumption, physical activity, and food security with the goal of preventing obesity and other diet related chronic diseases.” NEOPB notes that “California has the highest obesity-related costs in the United States, estimated at $15.2 billion with 41.5% of these costs financed through Medicare and Medi-Cal.” So these are not only health and wellness issues, but fiscal ones as well.

Anti-agriculture groups like to characterize water management issues as a choice between agriculture and the environment, calling for the retirement of hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland as the only way to “protect the environment.” But complex issues rarely lend themselves to simplistic solutions – and simplifying the complex water policy issues we are facing presents false choices and does all of us a disservice. The NEJM study shows that there is more at stake. Policymakers need to reject options that (falsely) call for a “choice,” and instead find solutions that will increase food production while preserving the environment.

While increasing California agriculture production is not a panacea for child health and nutrition, it certainly can play a role in making healthy food available and providing the means to improve our children’s diet. This season, Westlands Water District will be harvesting corn, melons, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and wheat, as well as permanent crops like grapes, almonds, pistachios, blueberries, and cherries. Californians are fortunate to have the climate and soil that can produce such a wide variety of food, especially at a time when droughts and famine are devastating many parts of the world.

As policymakers pursue water management solutions, they must avoid the danger of an “all or nothing” oversimplification of a complex problem that deserves more than rhetoric. Major social impacts are at stake, including the right balance between rural and metropolitan communities to grow the state as a whole, the economic impact of water shortages on local communities, the need to protect the environment, and yes – support of our stated goal of a healthy population with homegrown products that meet that need.

The New England Journal of Medicine findings highlight the “need for implementation of multicomponent interventions to reduce the prevalence and disease burden of high BMI.”  Shouldn’t one of those interventions be the assurance of fresh, homegrown fruits and vegetable?