Environmental insanity: hay grown in Californian desert by irrigation shipped to Japan

Posted: June 22, 2009 in environment, society
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Growing hay in the desert is one of the more absurd examples of trillions more for how economic thinking is short-term based, narrow-mindedly focused on making hay of another kind and selfishly preoccupied with serving serving individual material desires rather than community needs, leave alone those of species other than human. The following report by Melinda Burns was published by AlterNet.

hay-bales

In the Imperial Valley of California, a region drier than part of the Sahara Desert, farmers have found a lucrative market abroad for a crop they grow with Colorado River water: They export bales of hay to land-poor Japan.

Since the mid-1980s, this arid border region of California has been supplying hay for Japan’s dairy cows and black-haired cattle, the kind that get daily massages, are fed beer and produce the most tender Kobe beef.

Container ships from Japan unload electronics and other goods in the Port of Long Beach, and the farmers fill up the containers with hay for the trip back across the Pacific. Since the containers would otherwise return empty, it ends up costing less to ship hay from Long Beach to Japan than to California’s Central Valley.

“Everything is done for economics,” said Ronnie Leimgruber, an Imperial Valley hay grower who is expanding into the export market. “Japan cannot get hay cheaper. The freight is cheaper from Long Beach than from anywhere else in the world.”

Water is cheap for valley farmers, too: urban rates there are four times as high. It costs only $100 to irrigate an acre of hay in the desert for a year.

But what makes economic sense to farmers may not be rational behavior for California in the third year of a severe drought, say some conservationists. At the very least, they contend, the growing state debate over water allocation should take into account the exports of crops such as hay and rice — two of the most water-intensive crops in the West — because they take a toll on local rivers and reservoirs.

“This is water that is literally being shipped away,” said Patrick Woodall, research director at Food and Water Watch, an international consumer advocacy group with headquarters in Washington, D.C. “There’s a kind of insanity about this. Exporting water in the form of crops is giving water away from thirsty communities and infringing on their ability to deal with water scarcity. This is a place where some savings could be made now, and it’s just not being discussed.”

Now, estimates of hay exports from California range from 1.5 to 7 percent of the state’s total hay production. In 2008, according to researchers at the University of California, Davis, California exported between 617,000 and 765,000 tons of hay, some of it originally brought in from other western states. Most of it was shipped to Japan. A minimum of 450,000 acre-feet of water was required to grow the exported hay – roughly what the city of San Diego uses in two years.

But hay is not the only controversial crop; rice is another thirsty one, in an area that nature never developed to sustain water hungry vegetation. So, no matter what those rice growers say: the loss of water is a serious issue.

In 2008, the U.C. Davis data show, California exported 52 percent of its rice production, much of it to Japan. The California Rice Commission, a trade group representing 2,500 rice farmers, estimates that rice uses 2.2 million acre-feet of irrigation water yearly, about 2.6 percent of the state’s total water supply. Rice exports, then, soaked up about 1.1 million acre-feet of water in 2008, or enough water to supply the city of Los Angeles for a year and eight months.

By another estimate, with every pound of rice that leaves the U.S., about 250 gallons of “virtual” or “embedded” water used in growing and processing rice leaves along with it, according to “Water Footprints of Nations,” a 2004 study from the Netherlands for UNESCO (The report spawned the Web site www.waterfootprint.com.)

But Tim Johnson, president and CEO of the California Rice Commission, said water statistics and the notion that rice is a “monsoon crop grown in the desert” don’t tell the whole story.

“These are the same old arguments we heard back in 1990 when California had its last drought,” he said.

Rice exports help bolster Japan’s aging farm base and they provide high-paying jobs at California ports, Johnson said. Moreover, he said, rice is grown on heavy clay soil that can’t be used for other crops, and the paddies provide a habitat for more than 200 wildlife species.

“There’s no other crop that does as much for wildlife in the West as rice,” Johnson said. “The fullness of the discussion — not just how many units of water goes into an individual crop — is what’s needed.”

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