Two annoying myths about “agriculture”.

Dr. Sunding’s most recent cost-benefit analysis of the AroundDeltaWaterGo has some exciting tidbits that you’ll be reading in the news soon.  I’d like to call out one small item to make a different point about rhetoric:


Look!  The AroundDeltaWaterGo helps some farmers and hurts others.  Choosing to build the ADWG is a choice to favor some regions of farming.  Farming in California is not a single thing with an On/Off switch.  A decline in acres farmed is not ‘the end of California agriculture’.  Retiring an objectively large amount of ag land (say 3 million acres) would still leave an objectively large amount of ag land (six million acres).  I would like to see some real pushback against the rhetoric that lumps all regions and types of farming, because that obscures the choices I wish we were making.

The last point I quoted above brings up another myth about California agriculture that I’d like to go away.  Why should California be devoting so many irreplaceable resources to feeding everyone else?  Some dude said at the Israel*-California Water Conference**:

To me this is really a profound opportunity to do something for the whole world,” Mr. Thebaut said.  “The population of the planet is projected to be 10 billion people by 2050, and consequently food security and international security is at stake.  The farms in California throughout the Imperial Valley, the Central Valley, and along the coast, really supply a minimum of one-third of the food supply of this country.  The country’s population is right now about 324 million people, and it’s projected to be 438 million by the mid-century, so consequently the responsibility of the agriculture industry to be able to meet these demands is profound.”

Why?  The Great Plains could be farmed for grains and vegetables instead of corn and soy.  We do not have to meet increasing demand for cheap meat (wine, nuts), even if people want it.  Why is it California’s responsibility to feed as many people as we are at the cost of our own rivers?  California also has endemic species and ecosystems that are real nice.  Why isn’t is it our responsibility to preserve those, when food can be produced elsewhere? This banal, unexamined rhetoric (farming is all or nothing, we should produce all possible food) doesn’t help make hard choices.


*Dear reader, I want you to know that I am much more openminded about drought advice from Israel than I am about drought advice from Australia.   I hate hearing about Israel’s approach to water only about a third as much as I hate hearing about Australia’s approach to water.  I can tell you Israel’s approach: they threw huge money at the problem and they’re the size of a garden (500,000 acres).  You can afford just about any water technology at garden scale.  Hell, we could afford nearly any water technology if we had only 500,000 acres to irrigate.  For that matter, we could afford entirely careless water spreading if we had only 500,000 acres to irrigate.

**Special aside to Mike Wade, who has never once commented here even though he comments absolutely everywhere.  Dude.  I can solve your certainty problem.  California ag could have extremely reliable, certain water on about half its current area, even in our highly variable climate.  When California ag says they want reliability, they seem to mean: we want the public to guarantee water for us at a price we like no matter how much we decide to use (which is always benchmarked to the highest historical use).  There is a very reliable stretch of the hydrograph that could be dedicated to farming, and if farming used only that, they could build their stable vibrant farming communities with decent confidence about the future.  I’d happily discuss ways to support those communities, because I like ag tourism.




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12 responses to “Two annoying myths about “agriculture”.

  1. Michael

    Excellent points. ‘Why is it our responsibility to feed the world?’ Your proposed solution: “There is a very reliable stretch of the hydrograph that could be dedicated to farming, and if farming used only that, they could build their stable vibrant farming communities with decent confidence about the future.” A common sense solution but challenging to get traction I imagine. Within the farming community who would be the winners and who the losers? I would enjoy reading a continued debate on this topic especially from those directly involved in both the environmental and farming communities. Nice posting.

  2. caroleekrieger

    I couldn’t agree more with your thinking. As long as the profit motive is strong, then needs and what is best for the whole isn’t considered. Almonds are a prime example…the almond crop is using a lot of California’s water and so much of that crop is then exported. The Mother Jones article on the Resnick’s was very specific…their farming enterprises use more water than the entire cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco combined. That’s a lot of water.

  3. Thank you for the post and perspective. Completely agree. Why is California mandated to compromise the environment and habitat because the water is being leveraged for profit and providing product for the rest of the country and the world. A balance must be achieved. I always wondered how many acres of corn is grown for ethanol. Why the hell are we growing crops to make a fuel that drives up the cost of corn that then makes cattle production and meat more expensive? Another George W. Bush brain fart.

    • The Ogalalla Aquifer, which provides the water for much midwest farming, is also being used unsustainably. We have awoken to the fact that broader calculations of the effects of growing corn for fuel have revealed that it is no better than just using straight petroleum. The future might tilt toward “celluosic” ethanol derived from types of grass that make more sense.

  4. Larry

    Love the post except for the Israel part. A large part of the water for the Israel ‘garden’ has come from the Golan Heights (internationally recognized as part of Syria) and West Bank (occupied Palestinian territory). Israel control of water resources in the West Bank and Gaza has resulted in the water use per Palestinian being less than a quarter of what the average Israeli uses. See the positive yes but not at the cost of ignoring the bad.

  5. It seems to me the way to decide whether or not to build the WaterFix is to:
    1) Try to evaluate the most likely scenario for future water deliveries with the present system but operated within the laws that basically say you can’t ruin the fish ecosystem. I am aware that this is much easier to write in a comment box than to determine.
    2) Try to evaluate the most likely scenario for future water deliveries with the tunnels.
    3) Try to determine who does not get future water if the tunnels are not built. Go to those interests and ask if they want to have their land mortgaged to pay for the system to be built.
    I think that the most likely response will be the sound of crickets.
    I can understand the bitter disappointment of someone who used to get water delivered by a system that courts have ruled was being operated illegally.
    I am sure I will complain about rising food costs.
    Maybe this whole thing pencils out better than I think it will. But I think a likelier scenario is a bunch of partial statements that don’t add up.

  6. Anonymous

    “I would like to see some real pushback against the rhetoric that lumps all regions and types of farming, because that obscures the choices I wish we were making.” I totally agree that, for multiple reasons, dis-aggregating the sense that California agriculture is monolithic would be a huge service. Not just in region and type, but also simply in individuals and the diverse perspectives that exist out there.

  7. Sharing risk, and not doing everything possible to mitigate against it, is why I support the Wester Delta Intakes alternative.
    Imagine, horrible or as dreamy as it is to do so, depending, a polity deciding that Donald Trump decides what would best “fix” California’s water issues, among all the other wonderful decisions he would make. Could that view propose anything better than building an instrument like the WaterFix?

  8. “The Great Plains could be farmed for grains and vegetables instead of corn and soy” – you are far too intelligent to posit this type of hypothesis. High value products like veggies are not being grown in the Great Plains because they really can’t be. Most of the agricultural acres in the Plains are rain fed and have quite variable weather. If they could effectively grow high value veggies don’t you think they would already be doing so? Farmers aren’t stupid. Irrigated veggies in California make sense because of high yields and quality and high certainty that the crop will be harvested. The Midwest may grow a tomato crop on a perfect year – less yield probably – but if anything goes wrong with weather it will be a disaster. Just because some areas get 36″ of rain it doesn’t mean that the rain comes at the right time. If you shift production from California to other areas it will mean massive shifts in availability and cost for the average consumer. Those who can pay for local production will probably be fine, but aren’t all citizens entitled to local, ethically produced products?

    California leads the nation and world in regulation – environmental and human. Why would we want to source products from areas that don’t have the same standards? Unless there is some pressure on the rest of the USA and world to raise standards, why would you advocate for California to produce less?

  9. Irrigation efficiency, precisely like auto manufacturing, should be required by law. Implicit in such an argument, is that individual water management units will be fitted with very high precision water measurement networks which report water use and are perfectly accessible to any and all interested stakeholders. Because of the hidden nature of water use, this is the most divisive issue to farmers across the upper and lower Colorado River regions. The truth is, my 35 years as an ag-irrigation specialist inform me, yet while not a “Grower” per se, nitrogen use, which like water is generally imbued with vast amounts of energy, should be similarly measured and reported.
    The most ambitious water use efficiency efforts have been in California and Arizona. Farmers in most of the large ag regions of the state were supposed to be at 85% irrigation efficiency by 2000. California has a much more rational regulation, the new Groundwater Mgmt rules, which can, or should, consider routine assessment of the leaching fraction. There needs to be more attention to this since eliminating excessive deep percolation, which today goes utterly unaccounted, can swing too far towards toxic levels from one season (crop ecology) to the next, and only causes yield losses which are not reasonable. Average (running) farm profitability must remain positive. The is the concept of controlled deficit irrigation with controlled soil salinity management.
    Farming interests in the West have cried and whimpered about environmental regulations more than any sector, or so it seems. They are indeed subjected to risks no other sector needs to grapple with. We all get that, or at least we all should. Our irrigated agriculture policy must make abundantly clear that common resource pools, like air quality and fuel efficiency via negative automobile impacts, must move quickly into the 21st Century. Nearly all irrigated sections of land must be provided water on demand at proper pressures for filtration and distribution across each farm unit. Deficit irrigation budgeting and reporting needs some measure of flexibility built in, but strictly inforced. Progressive, future farmers deserve public works projects to enable precision irrigation. If we can give $38B in military aide to Israel, we can begin to spend $30B to plumb our irrigated crop lands.
    As far as new policies promoting “Locally Produced”, and others for “Curbing Exports of Scarce Water and Cheap Dirty Energy” embedded in wine, nuts, and meat, these are another debate we need to have. State legislatures with western governors association must be more honest with their constituents, as hopelessly impossible as that sounds. It seems like BIG irrigated agriculture in the West will indeed contract somewhat. But precision irrigation and fertigation reduced production costs, especially when there is significant cost-sharing. We can only hope much, if not all of it, will be replaced with highly efficient urban agriculture, on the order of 10-30 acre farms. But the wasteful, detrimental, unaccounted and hidden irrigation and fertilizer use must go. Like the Israeli’s, but only in this very strict sense as I view them (read:pro-Netanyahuites) as a fear and war mongers, let us follow, then lead the our common planet Earth in sustainable agriculture so we can say “We use drip irrigation like civilized people.”

    • We use drip irrigation like civilized people.

    • onthepublicrecord

      Hey now. I support all well-managed irrigation types. Flood/furrow has its place, and with a lot of work, can be tightly managed.

      Also, I always include a leaching fraction in crop water needs.