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Declining Agriculture - Hungry for Answers

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

One of the consequences of water transfers that Americans, generally take for granted an abundant year-round supply of low-cost produce. A massive decline in agricultural production will result in sharp grocery price increases, particularly in fall and winter months.

The United States has done little, if any, analysis of the impact on domestic food production of eliminating millions of acres of prime agricultural land (a phenomenon that began accelerating during the 1990s and early 2000s.) And yet if recent trends continue, declining domestic agriculture could even impact national security, potentially making the U.S. vulnerable to food insecurity in the event of national or international disruptions to food supply and distribution systems, such as natural disasters or wars. CURE is exploring ways to bring attention to this neglected issue.

Here's an article about water scarcity and food security written in 2010 by CURE Malissa McKeith and her colleague Nicole Wilson, outlining the lack of detail studies on food production needs in the U.S. 

Hungry for Answers: A Call for Critical Thinking on Water Scarcity and Food Security

By: Malissa Hathaway McKeith and Nicole Wilson

(2010) Malissa McKeith is the President of Citizens United for Resources and the Environment,Inc. (“CURE”), an action oriented think tank focused on government accountability in resource management decisions. She also is a practicing land use attorney chairing the Resources &Development Group at Lewis Brisbois in Los Angeles, California. Nicole Wilson is a law clerk with the firm.

Water transfers from agricultural areas increasingly are considered a viable option for managing drought conditions. Viewed in isolation, water transfers may be a politically expedient option for urban water needs; however, the cumulative consequences have yet to be fully explored. This paper advocates taking a longer‐term, multi‐disciplinary view toward identifying cumulative consequences of transfers to identify and to mitigate impacts early rather than in a crisis.

One issue that has received particularly little attention is how water transfers affect food security and how the loss of food production could combine with other market forces to potentially put the United States at risk of domestic food shortage. California provides a case in point since it is home to the most productive agricultural counties in the nation, is witnessing record declines in farmland, and is suffering from a prolonged drought used to justify more and more water deals.

In 2003, California approved the largest ever agriculture‐to ‐urban water transfer from the Imperial County to the coastal city of San Diego. The goal of the transfer was to reduce California’s overuse of the Colorado River. Reducing Imperial’s water consumption seemed like a sound option, because the transfer (about 300,000 acre‐feet yearly at full implementation) is roughly 10 percent of the Valley’s water use15.

Although the IID‐San Diego Transfer involved endless negotiations and legal wrangling, no genuine critical thinking was given to whether this transfer ultimately was environmentally and economically more costly long‐term compared to other alternatives for water conservation such as desalination and recycling. In Imperial, tail water from the flooding of fields historically flowed into the Salton Sea, the largest inland water body in California. Under the IID‐San Diego Transfer, that tail water is now ‘conserved’ so that less water flows into the Sea accelerating its decline. The Sea has no outlet, and it ultimately will become so saline as to destroy all sea life and the bird population dependent on it. The Sea’s shoreline also will shrink and newly exposed playa will alter micro‐climates that support high yield citrus farming and result in contaminated dust blowing back onto crops. How this contamination might affect food production or cause fallowing of otherwise fertile farmland was never considered. Water transfers admittedly are not the sole reason for reduction of productive farm land.

First, the cost of local food production in a global market has driven down the value of undifferentiated commodities so that the profit margins of U.S. farmers are decreasing except for the most value added crops. Not all farmers can shift to value added crops, and therefore many are abandoning farms. Steven C. Blank, Commodities and the Profit Squeeze, 13 ‐15 (1998). Since Americans can buy imported foods at relatively low prices, they also are less interested in subsidizing farms and investors are more likely to look elsewhere as profits decrease. Id at 2.15 In February 2010, a court invalidated all of the IID‐San Diego Transfer on constitutional grounds due to the failure of the water agencies and State of California to fund restoration of the Salton Sea.

Second, the housing market in the western United States boomed due to the availability of subprime mortgages. High quality farmland – which is defined as farmland that has more fertile soils and more reliable water supplies with higher crop yields ‐‐ decreased by 28 percent in California from 2000 to 2004. Projected urbanization of lands by 2050 show a 62 percent increase. Edward Thompson Jr., Paving Paradise: A New Perspective on California Farmland Conversion, American Farmland Trust, 12 (November 2007).

Third, recent court decisions have required the diversion of water from farms in California to ensure the survival of endangered species, the consequence of which has been the fallowing of many acres in the Central Valley of California. See Orff v. United States, 545 U.S. 596 (2005).

How water management decisions affect long‐term food security is not well analyzed. A 1983 article predicting the affects of water scarcity on farm production concluded that minimal impacts would occur. Burton C. English, Water: Its Changing Role in U.S. Agriculture, CARD Series Paper (Dec. 8, 1983) at 15. Circumstances on the ground were vastly different a generation ago. For example, farm yields of commodity crops had increased faster than demand; climate change was not a perceived problem; and water resources were still relatively plentiful. Nevertheless, English acknowledged the possibility for future shortage, and recommended better on‐farm efficiencies; snow pack management; and the elimination of phryatiphides along water ways. Id at 16, 17. The technical advances English assumed have not kept up with demand.

Importantly, English identified key problems that still impede the ability to objectively evaluate how water scarcity will affect food security. According to English, “In examining how critical water is in meeting national food demands, it would be useful if we could select specific future dates, set all of the exogenous and some of the endogenous variables, vary water supplies and predict the resulting expected increase in commodity prices. Statistical, econometric and other methods or models for these predictions do not exist, nor will they in the near future. Change in the variables and institutions that affect water supply may change dramatically. Meanwhile, these types of changes do not exist in historical data, so we cannot use the past to statistically predict the future impacts.” Id at 8.

Even a cursory review of U.S increases in crop imports over the past 10 years highlights the growing dependence on foreign markets. Detailed statistics underscoring this point are found in the US Bureau of the Census Trade Data (2009) U.S. Imports of Agriculture, Fish & Forestry Products from World Total 2003‐09 . The past ten years have marked an alarming increase in the importation of crops according to the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”). These imports are paralleled by a sharp education of domestically produced stables, such as wheat. The USDA briefing room report on wheat states that U .S. wheat harvested area has dropped off nearly 30 million acres, almost one third, from its peak in 1981, because of declining returns compared with other crops. Despite rising global wheat trade, the U.S.’ share of the world wheat market has eroded in the past two decades. USDA, Briefing Rooms on Wheat, March 31, 2010.

Another fundamental, unanswered question is how much food needs to be grown domestically for short and long‐term national security. The studies on food security and terrorism focus solely on direct sabotage of livestock or crops rather than disruption of imports. See Peter Chalk, Terrorism,Infrastructure Protection, and the U.S. Food and Agriculture Sector, RAND Series Paper (2001). And no comprehensive report has been developed that addresses how the U.S. would maintain civil order should such a disruption occur16.

Though water scarcity is only one of the driving forces affecting food security, it will become a more and more important consideration given increasing urban and environmental demands for the resource. This paper recommends:

•That Congress designate a multi‐agency and multi‐disciplinary team comprised of representatives of the Department of Interior, Department of Agriculture and The Department of Homeland Security to study and to report to Congress on the long‐term food security needs of the United States taking into consideration reduced water availability.

•That such a report evaluate the type and quantity of crops that must be grown and stored in order to ensure food security including the most appropriate regions for production taking into consideration water availability

•That such a report identify what tax incentives would either promote or undermine production designed to ensure U.S. food security

•That state and local governments identify prime farmland that should not be converted for urban use and adopt land use policies and financial incentives that promote food production for long‐term security.

•That more effective economic models be developed to determine the true cost of agriculture‐to ‐urban transfers with specific consideration of long‐term food security.


Articles and Reports

Mark W. Rosegrant et al., International Model for Policy Analysis of Agricultural Commodities and Trade (IMPACT) : Model Description, Int’l Food Policy Research Inst., June 2008.

David Ziberman et al., Food Safety, the Environment, and Trade, Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics, Working Paper No. 67, July 2008).

David Ziiberman, Keynote Address at the Alberta Ag Econ Ass’n. Conference: Water, the Environment, and California’s Agriculture (May 2, 2008).

Lindsay Falvey, Preconceiving Food Security and Environmental Protection, Asian L. J. of Agric. and Dev., Vol. 1, No. 2 (2004).

Below is a bibliography of materials reviewed in connection with this article.

The Outsourcing of Organic Crop Production, Research Brief No 2 (Crop Prod. Research Inst.)January 2005.

Steven C. Blank, The Economics of American Agriculture: Evolution and Global Development(2008).

Edward Thompson Jr., Paving Paradise: A New Perspective on California Farmland Conversion, American Farmland Trust, November 2007.

Sandra L. Postel, Entering an Era of Water Scarcity: The Challenges Ahead, 10(4) Ecological Applications, (2000) at 941. J

ason Morrison et al., Water Scarcity & Climate Change: Growing Risks for Businesses &Investors, Ceres Report, Feb. 2009.

Burton C. English, Water: Its Changing Role in U.S. Agriculture, CARD Series Paper (Dec. 8,1983). Peter Chalk, Terrorism, Infrastructure Protection, and the U.S. Food and Agriculture Sector, RAND Series Paper (2001).

Data and Statistics

US Imports of Agriculture, Fish & Forestry Products from World Total 2003‐2009, US Bureau of the Census Trade Data (2009). US Exports of Agriculture, Fish & Forestry Products from World Total 2003 ‐2009, US Bureau of the Census Trade Data (2009). USDA, Briefing Rooms on Wheat, March 31, 2010.California Agricultural Highlights 2008‐2009, California Department of Food and Agriculture(2009)California Agricultural Statistics, USDA (2008)

Newspaper Pieces

Mary Milliken, Water Scarcity Clouds California Farming’s Future, Fresno Examiner, March12, 2009.Bonnie Erbe, Vanishing Farmland: How it’s Destabilizing America’s Food Supply, Politics

Daily, June 3, 2010. Karri Hammerstrom, Lack of Water dries up California’s agriculture Prominence, Fresno Business Commentary Examiner, June 7, 2010


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