Calculating the real cost of water to Americans
The Kansas City Star
Before the sun set on one of the hottest, driest summers in U.S. history, I drove to Omaha, Neb., and got a good look at how the intense heat and drought had toasted the nation’s breadbasket.
This is corn country, where tall, green stalks normally clog farm fields in Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska. Because corn is in many food products and ethanol is made from the golden vegetable, it is a huge cash crop.
It made sense for many Midwest farmers to plant a lot of corn. But the drought, however, turned that into a bad bet.
On the nearly 200-mile drive to Omaha, normally lush fields were a decaying brown.
Mother Nature is fickle. Last year a lot of this land was under water from flooding.
This year trees, bushes, grass and crops were stressed by the heat. Many blame global warming for changing the weather resulting from increased burning of fossil fuels.
Before the planet reaches a tipping point from which there is no reversing the damage that greenhouse gases cause, now is a good time to not only change our energy consumption to renewables but to also rethink our wasteful water use.
We normally don’t think much about water. In this area it’s comparatively abundant.
A hot, dry year like this one, however, should help broaden the understanding that there isn’t enough water to satisfy our wasteful ways, especially for growing corn. Massive irrigation systems that normally help create the crop circles seen from airplanes, sat idle on my drive.
Most Midwest farmers knew that there wasn’t enough water that they could pump from underground to keep the corn alive or make the yield profitable compared with the cost of production. But because water in the Midwest has always been viewed as plentiful, many have taken it for granted and not assigned an accurate value to it.
Alan Beattie emphasizes the bigger picture in his book, “False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World.” He writes, “Only recently have many people come to see that water is rather like oil: it is essential to the running of a modern economy; demand for it is unresponsive to price in the short run, though it may be more flexible in the medium term; and its owners have a disturbing tendency to mismanage it in spectacularly silly ways.”
Corn is an example, requiring more water to grow than wheat. Many Kansas farmers are depleting the Ogallala Aquifer by planting corn. Little regard is given to water, which won’t be replenished as fast as it is being consumed.
Beattie wants us to think in terms of what he called “virtual water.” Crops grown in the Midwest, where water is seen as plentiful, get exported around the world. Instead of being transported as a food or fuel commodity, Beattie thinks of the crops as a water export because of the liquid resource that goes into the production. Our virtual water benefits parts of the globe where water is scarce.
But the true value of the actual and virtual water isn’t factored into the cost especially in the production of ethanol from corn. It consumes a wasteful amount of water.
Cattle for beef also are a wasteful water user. Beattie notes that it takes about a thousand cubic meters of water to grow a ton of vegetables. A ton of beef uses 42,500 cubic meters of water because of the feedstock used in the production.
“Beef is the biggest single contributor to the flow of virtual water for precisely this reason,” Beattie writes. “It makes up 13 percent of global virtual water trade compared with 11 percent for soybeans and 9 percent for wheat.” Corn also is a crop fed to cattle.
Globally and locally, clean water in the 21st century will become the planet’s most precious and costly commodity. Its price will rise to equal its real value for the world’s 7 billion people. People will have to adjust, factoring in the real price of water and fuel and reining in consumption to ensure we have a planet on which we can continue to grow crops, raise families and make a living.
To reach Lewis W. Diuguid, call 816-234-4723 or send email to Ldiuguid@kcstar.com.