Friday, December 07, 2012

Water issues and food production systems

Recently in The Age  there was this stark warning:

' LEADING water scientists have issued one of the sternest warnings yet about global food supplies, saying the world's population may have to switch almost completely to a vegetarian diet over the next 40 years to avoid catastrophic shortages'

The claims are from a report by Malin Falkenmark and colleagues at the Stockholm International Water Institute.  Meawhile in the US, water issues are confronting many in light of the major drought. Work at the New England Complex Systems Institute claims that:

'Recent droughts in the midwestern United States threaten to cause global catastrophe driven by a speculator amplified food price bubble.'

For most Australian's the responses canvassed in the New York Times article are not new and much has been learnt in Australia about how to respond.  However, memories tend to be short; governments backtrack in the mistaken belief that it is possible to return to a 'past normality'.  Despite over 10 years of intense drought there is, in our Australian practices and institutional arrangements, still much room for improvement both now and into the future. In California half of summer domestic water use if for lawns water on lawns; Californians cannot imagine doing without them.  In Santa Fe lawns are prohibited.  In preparing for the future places like Melbourne would be better conceptualised as a semi-arid city and green, temperate grass lawns abandoned as well.

This issue, like any systemic issue has many facets.  I for one can no longer condone ruminant animal production practices (i.e., mainly cattle) that create biological inefficiencies of the sort associated with feeding concentrates and other human edible food to animals.  In San Francisco recently it was good to see many restaurants advertising on their menus that animal products were grass fed (which is what ruminants evolved to do - convert grass).   Australia should abandon all feedlot operations that have come to be developed around the spurious notion that rumen biological efficieny is the driving factor in production system development. As The Age article notes:
'Adopting a vegetarian diet is one option to increase the amount of water available to grow more food in a climate-erratic world, the scientists said. Animal protein-rich food consumes five to 10 times more water than a vegetarian diet. One-third of the world's arable land is used to grow crops to feed animals.'  

Strict vegetarianism is probably not for everyone; an intermediate step could involve all, or some, of the following:
  1. reduce animal production that is dependent either directly or indirectly on irrigated production systems;
  2. reduce embodied-in-global-trade water exports in terms of crops used to feed animals - as is  typical of much of European agriculture - this could return more water to enviromental flows and protect areas in Brasil and Argentina from over exploitation and biodiversity loss;
Writing a Viewpoint in the latest edition of the Farmers Club Journal, Liz Earle, a co-founder of Liz Earle Naturally Active Skincare, a comapny with over 500 staff and a multi-million pound turnover in over 100 countries says:

'I believe the best options for our health as well as our planet are red meats and dairy products from mainly grass and forage-led ruminat animals such as cows and sheep'.

Andrew Campbell in a series of articles points to the potential for systemic failure arising from Australia not continuing to invest in irrigation research for food production. I support fully his claims that:

'... the proposal that we simply shift our irrigated agriculture north “to where the water is” does not stand up to even a cursory analysis. Similarly, the suggestion we can cost-effectively pipe or pump or ship the water south “to where the people are” ignores basic physics and economics.'

However, I was not sure that he made the point strongly enough that water must be used for maximum biological as well as social efficiency - so no more irrigated dairy pastures or forage for feedlots and more opportunistic annual cropping please.

No comments: