California farmers are being paid not to plant so Los Angeles and nearby cities can use the water that would otherwise go to (mostly low value) crops, says an article in the New York Times yesterday. The water is worth a lot when reallocated to urban use, so it’s not hard to offer farmers a lot of money for the privilege of borrowing their water for a season. The blowback from this kind of arrangement is that local farming economies — the ancillary services that depend on crop production as the base of a large economic pyramid (with the bankers on top, but we won’t go into that!) — get undermined when some farmers stop producing. When a lot of farmers stop producing, the local economy suffers even more, and the speculation is that, as with climate change, there is probably a tipping point where local farming-based economies will collapse.
The ethics here are complicated. Should cities forgo the opportunity to buy water from farmers? Should farmers refrain from selling their water? What if they need the money to put their kids through college? The NYT article cites two divergent responses from the Palo Verde Irrigation District, which is taking a mercenary stance, helping their members get top dollar when they sell their water, vs. the Imperial Irrigation District which regulates sales through a lottery system, and keeps the selling price low, to limit the land that is taken out of production.
This situation also shines a light on the inefficient application of scarce water to water-thristy, low-value crops like alfalfa. How ethical is that? What about regulating crop choice to require farmers to grow something more interesting, like vegetables? Or what about cropping practices that pollute the irrigation return flows with deadly agrochemicals? Is that ethical?
There was a big debate about all this in Europe over the past 15 years, as the members of the EU had to come up with a Common Agricultural Policy. The EU decided that agriculture is about more than growing crops; it’s also about lots of tangible and intangible benefits that are linked to the production cycle, from ecosystem services to culture heritage to health benefits of good food grown consciously. This is referred to, in the European (and Japanese) literature as agricultural multifunctionality, [This links to the Water-Culture Institute’s webpage on “The Ethics of Agricultural Water Use”], a term that has been suppressed by US agricultural officials as counter to the interests of American industrial modes of producing cheap food.
Debates about urban water needs and the ethics of transferring water out of agriculture into cities, will inevitably raise questions about the kind of agriculture that scarce water is supporting. One way farmers can increase their water security is to shift to growing crops that their urban water competitors really appreciate, and using farming practices that contribute to ecosystem health. A little water competition between cities and farmers might not be a bad thing, if both sides can make adjustments towards more responsible use.