The Pacific Institute has released another report on conserving ag water (or perhaps a final draft of the report I critiqued for ages in December) which I haven’t yet read. Some of the reported themes are maddening (furrow irrigation is not of itself inefficient, nor drip irrigation necessarily efficient; management is everything), but I can’t yet source that directly to the report. I want to highlight a different point:
“If we want to have a healthy agriculture economy, the only real option is to figure out how to produce more food with less water,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute and co-author of “Sustaining California Agriculture in an Uncertain Future.”
Naw. Dr. Gleick’s quote is only accurate if you assume a market-based or capitalist model of the farming economy. We could have a healthy agricultural economy that produced sufficient food for California by capping farming production to something scaled to sustainable practices, buying that food, plus subsidizing farmers for farming the way we want them to. It would make food more expensive, partly because that would internalize some of costs that farmworkers and the environment are paying now. It would be a subsidy, which isn’t itself a sin. I don’t want to extend indirect subsidies like cheap water, but I’m game to pay some piece of taxes to make the towns along Highway 99 be pleasant places full of stable farmers and farmworkers, and also to make farms be all eco-like. I’d be even more game to pay my share of those subsidies if I thought they were designed well to achieve goals I want.
I no longer want to export California’s environmental quality, its water, sun and salmon, bundled into almonds and apricots. I don’t want to do that even if a market supports it, even if people on the East Coast would like to eat what we grow*. I don’t want to depend on a growth economy when I think we’re approaching the physical limits of our stocks and flows. I’m fine with mining inefficiencies while we make a transition to a different type of economy, but those will run out and unless bioengineering pulls out miracles I don’t expect, I don’t see big increases, or even constant small yield increases for decades to come. I think we’re going to see step disconuities like this drought racheting us down for a while (yields, in the short term, standard of living in the long term, as much as standard of living is captured by eating meat, for example). Which means I want us to think about getting to an attractive end point for Californians. I don’t think the growth-economy model is going to get us there, so it makes me sad to see our well-known progressive thinkers internalizing it. I would like us to make the harder case for paying, as consumers and citizens, for the farming sector we want to have**.
[Edited and second footnote added the next day.]
*No, I don’t want my thousands of wonderful readers to starve for want of Californian food. I want other regions to step into truck crop production as California decreases production, and I want there to be fewer people altogether.
**I see from Aquafornia that an economist scoffs at the idea of additional subsidies, preferring to let the market thin the herd. Thing is, I don’t like where economic efficiency has left us. I don’t like high risk, low profit farming, with rents being squeezed from farm labor and the environment. Economic efficiency turns our working landscape into horrible sterile factories that regularly kill farmworkers; if you doubt me, I’d be happy to take you on a farm tour. We are extremely wealthy and should pay to have our food source be stable and humane. We would be paying to have our agricultural sector provide more services than food production. (This is not to say that I do not like farming efficiently. I do like that.)