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Southeast could help ease burden of over-centralized production

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  • Reports from various organizations and agencies seem to support the assertion that an over-reliance on the West and Midwest for U.S. food production might not be sustainable, especially in regards to the availability of water resources.

We recently discussed the prospect of re-shifting U.S. agricultural production – of the possibility of building an irrigation infrastructure in the Eastern portion of the country that would allow us to decentralize agricultural production and reduce our vulnerability to the vagaries of climate.

Now, reports from various organizations and agencies seem to support the assertion that an over-reliance on the West and Midwest for U.S. food production might not be sustainable, especially in regards to the availability of water resources.

Ceres, a non-profit organization that advocates for sustainability leadership, reports that while U.S. corn production has nearly doubled in the last 20 years, including a harvest of nearly 14 billion bushels last year, much of that production is occurring in locations that currently are experiencing water shortages. While about 20 percent of corn production is in irrigated areas, most of those areas – currently about 87 percent – are undergoing water shortages.

The report amplifies warnings earlier this year from United Nations climate scientists and the National Climate Assessment that America’s agricultural industry – and specifically its corn crop – was at risk from the high temperatures and water shortages anticipated in the near future.

The Ceres report shows that more than half of the country’s irrigated corn production, worth more than $9 billion a year, depends on groundwater from the Ogallala aquifer in the High Plains, where groundwater supplies are already declining. California corn growers – who rely on both surface and groundwater irrigation – face similar pressures and are already being forced to let their fields go fallow due to the devastating drought there.

Like similar reports, the one from Ceres makes for interesting and sometimes frightening reading, but it doesn’t offer up much in the way of solutions. However, the Eastern U.S., particularly the Southeast, could step up and provide some relief by expanding its own irrigation capacity. And it wouldn’t hurt if our farmers here received some of the same government financial support that their counterparts in other parts of the country have enjoyed over the years.

Alabama’s state Legislature recently stepped up to the plate and offered tax incentives for new irrigation and for the expansion of existing irrigation, but other states and the federal government could and should do more to insure the security of our food supply.

This is certainly not to suggest a wholesale relocation of the Corn Belt to the Southeast, but there’s potential here for some expansion of irrigation, while other regions of the country have clearly reached their limits. 

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