Water fights are coming

It’s currently raining in southern Minnesota while it is beginning to snow in northern Minnesota, which means the snow piles are rapidly shrinking and we are finally losing some of the ice on our county roads. All of this before we get another 2-4” of snow in the next 2 days. The rain is also helping remove snow from rooftops, easing the stress on rafters from the very heavy loads accumulated in the past 6 weeks.

The ‘official’ snow depth in Mankato late last week was 20” (500+ mm for my foreign readers). With this much insulation, the frost level hasn’t penetrated very deep and I even saw a field drainage tile outlet running last week when the wind chill was -15F or colder.

All of this water is in contrast to several articles I’ve read in the past few weeks dealing with the world wide needs for water in coming years. In an interesting paper published in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, a group of 54 scientists from around the world presented their list of ‘The top 100 questions of importance to the future of global agriculture’ (8(4):219-236). Many of their questions dealt with water and the increased demands that will be placed on available water supplies in coming years.

For example, the number 2 question was “What would be the global cost of capping agricultural water withdrawals if environmental reserves are to be maintained?” An interesting question that will impact pork production in the US and other countries.

Right now, we are facing increased feed ingredient prices and resultant break even prices because of the rapid increase in corn and soybean prices in response to US government energy policy which is resulting in 36% of the 2010 corn crop being converted to ethanol, with DDGS as the co-product that the livestock industry is using. What happens to feed grain prices if water becomes a limit to production, either by regulation in states that rely on irrigation (such as Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado) or by a major drought in the corn belt? Will the consumer be willing to pay the very much higher price necessary in the meat case for pork producers to stay in business?

This is more than a question of ‘what if’. It really is a question of when. When will the water demands of production agriculture run head-on into competing water demands such as threaten species, urban needs, interstate compacts for in-stream water flows, etc.? How will the consumer react when their cost of food increases as a result of these competing demands?

Right now, the American consumer spends approximately 7.5% of their disposable income on food (both food prepared at home and food ingredients purchased in food service venues such as cafeterias and restaurants. If we add in the service costs of food service venues, our food cost is still less than 10% of our disposable income, the lowest in the world.

How will the US consumer react is suddenly they are faced with food expenses of 15% or even greater? If the cause of the rise in prices is due in part to water policy and availability issues, will they be willing to alter their water consumption patterns in ways that will allow more water availability for agriculture? Can they alter their patterns in a meaningful manner in this scenario?

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