Monday, June 13, 2011

Food, Water and the Environment

World wide there seems to be a lot of extreme weather lately. This may be variability in weather that has been widely reported, the result of changing climate, migrating magnetic fields or something else. Trends in weather are very difficult to see while they are happening because of the natural variability of weather. No matter what the cause, the growing population of the planet needs to survive each devastating storm, earth quake, tsunami, drought, and volcano that impacts our countries. As the population of the planet grows our resource reserves and flexibility to respond to crisis shrinks. Farmers need to withstand whatever weather and natural disasters come their way while continuing to increase the amount of food they produce to meet rising demand. As the population of the earth has grown and the “developing world” grows richer the demand for food has increased markedly. Richer nations add more dairy, meat and fruit to their diets which require more water and cultivated feed to produce than a subsistence diet of grain. Millions of people in Asia have added meat and dairy products to their diets, requiring considerable amounts of grain as feed and vast amounts of water. While this was going on, US energy policy resulted in the conversion of much of the American corn crop into ethanol.

Russia has been hit with the worst drought in a half century. Australia has suffered years of drought only to be hit by torrential flooding so that the lack of water has been replaced by too much water. India’s falling water table and water shortages have been well documented in the world news. Even U.S. grain forecasts have been reduced as much of the Mississippi plane has been flooded, and Texas is mired in a drought. On a bright note, California has received a reprieve from their multi-year drought, but the water deliveries to the farmers is at 75% of water allocations. Another location of unusual weather has been California where unseasonably cold weather over the past month has frozen the Sierra snowpack in place long after it would have normally melted. This is the deepest snow pack at the Donner Pass in June since 1946 when records were first kept. A summer heat wave could cause melting snow in the Sierra to cascade down from the mountains all at once, but the Department of Water Resource believes that the Yuba, Feather and Sacramento rivers would be able to handle higher flows if it became necessary to dump water out of the big reservoirs during a mass melt-off to prevent flooding. So the California agricultural crops should not be impacted.

With appropriate planning and reaction to weather disruptions, the United States has enough agricultural productive capacity and a large enough continent to survive most regional weather extremes. Not everyone does. The agricultural output of the earth needs to increase while the increasing population takes a larger share of the available fresh water and while reducing the environmental damage caused by the business of agriculture, by maintaining river flows, groundwater tables, and limiting chemical use and nutrient contamination. We cannot treat farming as if it were a dangerous polluter to be driven out of our geographic regions. Certainly, all farms should have nutrient management plans and utilize agricultural BMPs, it will take education, money and work to improve the environmental performance of agriculture. These costs loom large to the farmers, but ultimately will be borne by all of us.

In 1970 a third of the population in the developing world was undernourished. By the mid-1990s, the share had fallen below 20 percent, and the absolute number of hungry people dipped below 800 million for the first time in modern history. However, growth in food production fell behind population growth and increasing demand for meat and dairy. The World Bank estimates that the number of hungry people this year as 940 million. World hunger is back and appears likely to continue to grow. The increased demand for food must somehow be met on a planet where little new land is available for farming, where water supplies are tightening, where the temperature is believed to be rising or at least where the weather is erratic and where the food system is already showing serious signs of instability. There is a world food crisis building. Virginia has been blessed with a moderate climate and adequate rainfall, but agriculture is under assault by environmentalist popular opinion. Eliminating agriculture from the Chesapeake Bay Watershed is short sighted and quite frankly a really bad idea on so many levels. Nonetheless, farm practices and land management need to change and improve. The TMDLs required reduction in total nutrient load in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed is not just about maintaining the beauty of the Bay, it is about our water and our life.

Like all estuaries the Chesapeake Bay is an incredibly complex ecosystem that we are only beginning to understand. Estuaries are productive ecosystems and habitats. The Chesapeake Bay serves as a nursery ground for the fish and shellfish industry and protects the coast from storm surges and filters pollution. The estuary filters water that is carrying nutrients and contaminants from the surrounding watershed. The nutrients in proper balance bring fertility, but excess nutrient contamination to the Chesapeake Bay has caused degradation in the habitat. Excess nutrients and sediment from sewage treatment plants, farm fields and animal pastures, urban and suburban run off from roads and landscaping can cause eutrophication. As the ecosystem of estuaries declines, species die out, coastlines experience excessive erosion by wind, tidal action and ice. To restore the damaged portions of the Bay reductions in nutrient contamination will have to take place. Wastewater treatment plants, agricultural nutrient management plans and BMPs, stormwater managements and reductions in population and economic activities are the only sources of these reductions. Agriculture is generally considered the least cost method of reducing sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus. Implementing these changes will reportedly allow us to feed more people with the same land resources, bringing agriculture to the next level. We will carry this cost in either increased cost of food, or hidden in a nutrient trading program as an overall tax to economic activity. Nutrient contamination is about population head count, our waste, our food, our roadways, our landscaping.

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