Water Utilization And the Economics of Agricultural Production

Foy's Lake, Chittigong Bangladesh

Every February your loyal scribe winds his way down to Louisville Kentucky.  I go there to work, always looking for another opportunity.  As many of you already know I published a feature on that show this past summer in Country Guide magazine.   However, I like to kick tires too.

For a Canadian it is a real expose of American agricultural culture.  I run into things which frankly I don’t have a clue.  It’s so bad sometimes; I can’t even make sense when I talk.  Typically that happens when I run into some farmers from the south or west.  This Ontario farm boy turns into quite a specimen.

One such occurrence happened last February when I ran into a vendor from Western Nebraska who was selling mobile seed wagons.  They were the rage in Louisville.  Striking up a conversation, it soon turned to days gone by.  Maybe that was a reflection of our ages.  This fellow from western Nebraska told me how the aquifers in his area were drying up.  It had become a serious issue.

It’s something we don’t think about near my farm in southwestern Ontario.  In fact in this part of Canada we spend millions of dollars draining our land.  However, water is essential for the successful growth of crops and livestock.  In many parts of North America water is the “whole tamale”.  In the rest of the world, scarcity of water is driving agricultural production and the economics of food.

For much of the world scarcity of water is life and death.  In Africa it’s mostly a question of getting the hydraulic capacity going to nurture agriculture and sustain the people.  In Asia it is more about utilizing the existing water for the millions of rural poor who need it.  UN secretary general Kofi Annan has even talked about a “Blue Revolution” in agriculture.  This would focus on making productivity gains per litre of water-“more crop per drop.”

With this in mind you would think Canada would be a potential future agricultural powerhouse.  We’ve seemingly got water everywhere.  However, most of it is very cold, frozen during large parts of the year.  That fact alone limits our agricultural potential.  Aside from the United States, it is Brazil, which holds much of the world’s water, and it has the climate to take advantage of it unlike Canada.

At the present time Brazil is one of the world’s leading exporters of soybeans, sugar, coffee, beef, ethanol and other agricultural commodities.  Brazil holds 11% of the world’s fresh water supplies and with that they should be able to foster trade flows of agricultural goods into future years.

However, Brazil is no United States.  We have seen soybean production decrease in Brazil.  However the production potential still remains huge.  The United States might have its dry regions but their production capacity in my mind is still very large.  Brazil will have a very hard time knocking them off the block.  Water woes aside, the United States will get more “crop per drop”.

They will probably do it with new technologies to further utilize existing water resources.  New biotech discoveries such as the “drought gene” is being studied which possibly could widen the present day “corn belt” to more arid areas of the southwest. The Milk River Montana/Alberta dispute between Canada and the United States may become less relevant.  However, right now it still causes a ranker for my Montana readers.

A friend of mine did his PhD thesis on this very subject, water utilization.  He now works within the agricultural policy realm within the bureaucracy here in Canada.  However, he was originally from Antigua.  On my visits there he told me I had to take a shower with a “teaspoon of water.”  I was aghast.  But as I turned the tap and a cold drip, drip came out I knew what he meant.  Water here isn’t quite gold, but its close.

Years later I found myself walking through the rice paddies on northern Bangladesh near the Indian border state of Assam.  The Bangladeshis are poor, depending on their intricate irrigation schemes to grow enough rice to feed them for another day.  I stopped at one very nice rice paddy and commented to my colleague and co-author Dr. A.K.Enamul Haque.  Overhearing me from behind was a Bangladeshi farmer.  So there I was struggling along with him to try to communicate about what he was growing and what I grow back home.

At the end of the day, regardless of what was said he needed water and I did too.  The bottom line is water availability and utilization will surely drive agricultural production in the future.  In many ways with “corn mountain” building across North America, that’s hard to fathom.  Most of you probably think we need a little more “drought.”

We’ll see.  With the world’s population growing in places like Asia and Africa, water will surely determine how and if they will be fed.  The challenge for Canadian agriculture is to seize that opportunity.  Managing our bountiful water resources with our agricultural acumen would surely help us fill that global water void.