• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Learning (from) drought

Discussion of economic impacts highlights requirements for food system resilience.

July 17, 2014

NPR's Diane Rehm hosted an hour-long (+/-) discussion this morning focusing on the current drought in California, and its likely impact on US food prices.  Participants included a Farm Bureau economist, a Bloomberg News reporter and a UC-Davis agricultural/resource economist. 

The discussion started with an indication of magnitude -- the statement that 2014 looks like the third-driest year in the last 163 (basically, since California became a state).  Specific questions then addressed surface water shortfalls, improved and increased irrigation using groundwater, fallowing of arable land, shifting crop planting patterns, urban and suburban water conservation efforts -- a pretty wide range of immediate impacts. 

What didn't even get mentioned until about halfway through the conversation, though, was whether the current drought is at all rooted in climate change.  In fact, that very reasonable question wasn't raised until after possible causation by such events as NASA-triggered explosions on the moon (very real) and China's positioning of giant orbiting mirrors (very unreal) had already gotten brief airtime.  Now we all know how hard it is to tie any specific current weather event to climatic shifts.  After all, weather is local and immediate; climate is a measurement removed from weather by an order of magnitude both geographically and chronologically.  But this year's drought in California isn't just one weather event, it's part of a specific three-year or longer pattern.  And it pretty obviously correlates with shifting precipitation patterns across the country (severe droughts from California as far east as Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri, while here in the Northeast a lot of us are having quite the opposite problem).  I wouldn't expect the whole discussion to focus on changing climate, but it does strike me as a major element in setting meaningful context.

That quibble aside, however, I found the discussion potentially useful.  Some points that either got made explicitly or were such obvious implications as to make no difference:

  • Food production is always specific to a particular location.  Thus, if the vast majority of production of a specific food item is narrowly concentrated, geoographically speaking, impacts of low production due to inclement weather ripple throughout the system.  If production is more geographically distributed, proportional crop loss will likely be smaller.
  • For some types of food production (the specific examples mentioned were dairy and animal protein), being located near to the end consumer is advantageous.
  • Demand for food items can change based on customer expectations.  The geographically closer the producer and the consumer, the more likely the customer is to anticipate and understand reduced availability due to unfavorable circumstances. 

All of which, of course, mitigates in favor of more varied food production not only in California's Central Valley, but across the country and around the world.  In a sense, the argument echoes the experience of  subsistence farmers in the global south who were able to survive lean years when they grew a traditional range of crops and kept a few chickens/goats/swine, but who were induced by international "aid" to shift to production for the global market and thereafter found that a bad year or two (and, in agriculture, bad years are inevitable) spelled disaster.  It's not a unique story -- if you want an example from the global north, just look into the Irish potato famines in the 1930's and 1940's.

Looked at in broader terms, what this discussion makes apparent is the inherent conflict between system efficiency and system resilience.  A market- (which is to say, money-) driven economy tends to emphasize efficiency of production (particularly labor-efficiency of production, which often focuses on economies of scale and thus geographic concentration) under circumstances (including climate) which are considered "normal".  But maximum efficiency under normal circumstances often translates into minimal effectiveness when those circumstances change.  It's the old story of "putting all your eggs in one basket".  Except we're not talking about one family's egg production, we're talking about the whole nation's egg production.  Or fruit production.  Or vegetable production.

Consciously sacrificing some degree of economic efficiency in order to increase system resiliency isn't a decision today's financially-driven and notoriously short-sighted management ethic values much.  But as long-term conditions (climate and otherwise) continue to change, that ethic will have to evolve. 

Curricular materials will need to evolve as well. 

And not just Ag Ec curricular materials.


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