Remember the shock of seeing bare shelves in our grocery stores and the disturbing hoarding behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic? This should be our wake up call. Our food system is interconnected, and the multiple threats to our food supply are real. What happens far away geographically does affect us locally, and vice versa. It is basic risk management to first identify and then directly address these threats both near and far. Goya’s CEO says, “We are on the precipice of a global food crisis.” One of the world’s largest fertilizer producers says we are “facing a perfect storm for the whole food system right now.” Global organizations, such as Food Action Alliance, Food Innovation Hubs and many others, are advocating for changing food production and distribution systems to include creating local hubs.
Why discuss food production when we are struggling with creating water security in Utah? It may appear counterintuitive. Yet now is the correct time to link both in our thinking and planning. We have a long way to go to achieve food security when only 2% to 3% of our fresh produce consumed in Utah is produced in the state. What if we had to bring in 97% to 98% of our water to Utah? Would we feel vulnerable?
We are currently at risk of changing from a food oasis to becoming a food desert. If long haul trucking was to cease completely, we would run out of food in just three days. While admittedly an extreme example, a more likely scenario of natural or man-made disasters in the food production areas (e.g., California, Mexico) would result in delays, scarcity and high prices. Policy decisions, such as cutting water to fertile agricultural areas (e.g. California) negatively impacts food availability and pricing in Utah, and elsewhere. Calamities in other parts of the world, such as Ukraine or Russia, impact fertilizer and grain availability. In fact, food costs have increased almost 40% from two years ago which hit the poorest first and hardest ... and eventually all of us.
U.S. food imports continue to increase annually, thereby further increasing our dependency on other countries. Clearly, we are highly dependent upon others for our sustenance. I have heard senior officials from industrial agriculture organizations and governments discuss the leveraging power of agriculture and food security to strengthen market/economic dominance, using a scarcity model. “Control food and you control people,” said Henry Kissinger. Others envision abundance and self-sufficiency. What do we envision for Utah?
In 2012, The Utah Agriculture Sustainability Task Force, primarily composed of state and local government representatives, landowners and industry representatives, issued an important report. They concluded that Utah should not become further dependent on external sources “for such a basic and critical need as food,” and warned that our “local food security is at risk.” What has been accomplished in the last decade?
Utah agriculture is facing a crossroads. The drought, recent pandemic, and the Great Salt Lake crisis should be sufficient catalysts to compel us to create an agricultural and environmental reset. Each is another warning voice. And there are others. Will we listen? It would serve us well to remember John Muir’s words, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” We need not look any farther than the lessons of the Great Salt Lake crisis to see the wisdom of his statement.
We would greatly benefit from creating a new agriculture paradigm that is holistic and symbiotic. The status quo in Utah agriculture is simply not adequately responsive to human needs. Consider that at least 70% of all water used in Utah is to support livestock and related production alone, yet we know there is more to the story than a simple statistic. Smart application of technology can reduce water demands for alfalfa and hay production, and also help create affordable, accessible and nutritious locally grown food. A more diverse agricultural profile also results in many economic benefits for Utah, nationally and globally. Solutions to our agriculture and food production challenges exist. It is up to us to link food and water security for the sustainability of generations to come.
David C. Hatch is a former presidential appointee in the USDA/Risk Management Agency in Washington, D.C. He is also a hemispheric expert in agricultural risk management, based in Washington D.C and Costa Rica. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for Conserve Southwest Utah.