Alfalfa exports to the Middle East are sucking the American West dry

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A few years ago Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah decreed that as of 2016 the country will no longer produce grains such as wheat and hay on its own soil; they simply do not have enough groundwater remaining to irrigate such water intensive crops. But rather than alter the country’s meat and dairy industry, Abdullah directed Saudi food producers to look abroad for the resources to maintain their herds. At least one, Almarai, Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy company has shifted its grain production to Arizona where, for the right price, they have been depleting billions of gallons of the state’s equally limited groundwater supply since 2014. When the grain is mature, it is shipped back to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s dealings in Arizona is just one example of the oceans of water the U.S. ships abroad annually in the form of animal feed.

Agriculture is one of California’s primary industries and is estimated to use about half of the state’s water. Last year California produced upwards of 12 trillion pounds of alfalfa hay. In 2013, the last year for which the California Department of Agriculture provides complete data, California exported 21% of its alfalfa crop, over a million tons, to international markets.

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Since a 1lb of alfalfa requires the input of approximately 160 gallons of water, somewhere around 400 billion gallons of California water was sold to China, Japan, the United Arab Emirates  and other countries with growing middle- and upper-class populations hungry for dairy and meat. This while restrictions on the water use of businesses and residents throughout the state were implemented in 2015 due to extreme drought. Businesses, that is, with the exception of those in the agricultural industry. Virtually no new restrictions have been placed on agricultural water use in California. Meanwhile, the income produced by the sale of feed grains abroad has ballooned. Between 2010 and 2014, their sales to the Middle East, alone, tripled.

Why don’t these countries just develop their own alfalfa industries?

Some, like Saudi Arabia and much of the Middle East simply don’t have the water to invest and shipping in freshwater is cost prohibitive (though that may soon change). For others, it’s about the bottom line. It is now cheaper to ship alfalfa from Los Angeles to Beijing than to transport it locally from California’s Imperial Valley to the San Joaquin Valley a few hundred miles away making the international trade in feed crops an attractive endeavor for the U.S., too.

It’s worth asking why is the international trade in animal feed like alfalfa different from the international trade in, say, almonds, another water intensive crop?

The production and international trade of alfalfa results in two distinct climate impacts in two distinct regions of the world.  In the U.S., irrigating a crop intended for use by agriculturalists halfway around the world puts pressure on the water supply intended for local consumption. Upon arrival at it’s destination, the same crop embarks on a second destructive path by feeding densely packed industrial livestock operations that result in methane emissions, the release of toxic byproducts into local water and soil, unsafe sanitation and other impacts similar to those of fossil fuels in the global economy.

Ironically, the U.S. regions providing hay for the Middle East and Asia – the southwest and California – are, themselves, suffering from extreme drought and quickly diminishing supplies of groundwater. In the case of Saudi Arabia’s Almarai, the company has used its wealth to purchase the water rights in a country where everything is for sale, shifting the burden of its dairy industry onto a region that can barely sustain its local communities.

With growing population, increasing living standards and stressed resources worldwide, alfalfa exports are just one more cog in the well oiled machine of unsustainability. Forgetting for a moment the plastic needed to protect the green cargo and the greenhouse gases emitted to ship the stuff around the world, its arrival in a foreign land will do nothing for the nutrition of the local population since its calories can’t be directly consumed.

It will, however, support the continued growth of industrial meat and dairy operations that, according to international bodies like the U.N., are not only leading contributors to climate change but are not sustainable options for feeding a growing world population.

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