Water we doing?

By: Keith Arnold, ASU Food Systems graduate student.

What keeps you up at night? What worries you about the future of food? When asked this, the gentleman answered by sharing relatable responses. Will my grandchildren have food to eat? Will there be enough resources for their own families and friends to farm as their present-day ancestors? What does the future hold for the United States? Not only for the government but also for the land and people. When will urban leaders understand the importance of agriculture in the face of booming technology? These were a few aspects provided by Arizona Department of Agriculture (AZDA) Director Mark W. Killian. 

Director Killian’s role is to support and promote agriculture in the state of Arizona which includes livestock, poultry, commodities, seed and feed, weights and measures, pest management, inspection duties at retail and manufacturing facilities, inspections of exports and imports, and working alongside other branches of the federal government for the defense of our food supply. If there’s a commercial transaction in a food product, Director Killian and his team are there and or are over it. 

Now, Arizona agriculture consumes over 70% of all freshwater usage in the state. One could use the same percentage globally as well and you wouldn’t be far off3. Arizona’s $23.3 billion agricultural industry1 accounts for about 6% of the state’s GDP2. One industry that surprised the class was the abundance and success of the olive industry. The Director compared the local climate to that of Israel and how the weather is prime to grow not only olives, but citrus, nuts (pecans and pistachios) and vegetables. If you were wondering how supermarkets stay stocked with salads this time of the year, there’s a good chance your ingredients were grown in Yuma, the “winter lettuce capital of the world,” along with other leafy greens. 

To address the water shortage concern, one hope that Director Killian has is that plant biotechnology may develop further to produce more food while consuming significantly less water for long-term sustainability. Another solution is a recent bill that has been re-introduced to Congress to provide water to refill Lake Mead. This lake is the reservoir that supplies water to Arizona’s neighboring states in the Southwest and into Mexico. The bill proposes to utilize the flood waters from the Mississippi River and pump them across country4. But, environmental concerns remain and the cost of the project has not been determined. In addition to this, tapping into underground water outside of the Phoenix area may provide a reasonable solution. Under the partnerships that make up the Salt River Project (SRP), which includes the indigenious Maricopa and Pima, water is being used to recharge aquifers and can be pumped out when needed5

The water is needed now to maintain the agricultural lifeblood in combination with Best Management Practices (BMPs). The direct effects of drought linger as operations are scaling back production due to the water shortage and more land lays fallow as production costs rise. Simply framed by the Director, farmers sell at wholesale prices but buy at higher retail prices. This is making internal improvements difficult with inflation on: commodities, fuel, power, and water. Smaller companies and family farms have to work off depreciation during downtimes and up to about a 2%-5% profit margins on the not-so-bad times. How can one operate or continue to have sustained operation long-term when fertilizer, for example, has risen significantly, even doubled in cost, within the year6? Director Killian provided examples of how farmers have left with a decent payout from incoming tech companies and developers buying their land and were able to relocate and continue their operations with the additional capital. 

There are multiple factors that will determine how each operation continues. However, what we choose to eat as consumers can help preserve our precious finite resources such as water. This can lead to changes in demand and, thus, carry over to farmers' agricultural practices. Consider that operations, including indigenious farmers, are growing/converting to a cash crop like alfalfa7, although it’s one of the more water-intensive crops when compared to more drought tolerant crops like beans and vegetables. Nonetheless, it is destined for cattle feed because of the proven profit yields. When will the current circumstances open leaders to adopt and adapt how we grow food and where? How do we preserve our food supply without surrendering or, at the very least severely depleting, our natural resources? Hence, the Director implored us to push change and be “maintainers of the soil” (thus one another) to produce as we see fit. 

Special thanks to all the faculty and my fellow graduate students for their participation in our Q&A with Director Killian, and to Director Killian himself. 

¹ https://agriculture.az.gov/sites/default/files/AZDA_GuideToAZAg-R5.pdf

² https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/AZNGSP 

³ https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpls.2019.01676/full 





This blog is part of a series from the December 2021 Arizona immersive component of the MS in Sustainable Food Systems Program. Students toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff, and non-profit leaders.