Averting Climate Catastrophe in an Arizona Orchard

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The metropolitan areas of the American Southwest may have the largest water footprints in the world, according to a December 2010 report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). “The capacity for water to support cities, industry, agriculture, and ecosystems in the U.S. West is near its limit,” says the report.

Author, plant conservationist, and sustainable agriculture advocate, Gary Paul Nabhan, is an orchard keeper and chili grower in Arizona. In a recent article in The Atlantic, entitled Farming in the Time of Climate Catastrophe, Nabhan discusses farming in a region experiencing unprecedented shocks from climate change and increasing demand on dwindling water resources. In order for Arizona farmers to succeed in addressing food insecurity amidst growing population pressures, Nabhan believes it is time to rethink agriculture.

“Here in the desert, we live on the edge,” he says. “And yet, most of the residents of the Southwest don’t much behave as if that were the case in terms of food and water security.” With aquifers and reservoirs dropping to record low levels, Nabhan believes, the way in which the Southwest uses its water resources is “clearly unsustainable,” even without considering impending climate change.

Agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of Arizona’s water use. But the Southwest has one of the fastest growing populations in the country, and farmers will increasingly have to compete with urban demand. 2010 saw Lake Mead—an important reservoir for Tuscan and Phoenix residents, as well as Arizona farmers—drop to below 39 percent of its capacity. The lake has not been that low since its construction in the 1930s. Water scarcity will likely worsen with the higher temperatures and increased severity of drought expected as a result of climate change. Mainstream agriculture in Arizona is dependent on a steady stream of low-cost water, and the rising price of water will have a huge impact on farmers.

“[Farmers] will need to cut their water use… or else they will have to retire some of their arable lands from food production altogether,” Nabhan says. The four U.S.-Mexico border-states have already lost more than 6 million acres of farmland to development since 1982. This represents 26 percent of the country’s food-producing capacity. With food production dropping in the region, food prices are rising. “Arizona and New Mexico are already listed in the sixth states worst afflicted by child food insecurity and are ranked with Mississippi in the three states with the worst poverty.” And Arizona’s poverty rate is climbing 3.7 faster than the national average. “In other words, the limited capacity of the poor to purchase enough healthy foods at current prices is clearly affecting their food security and vulnerability to outright hunger.”

Although he admits that his contributions are small by comparison, Nabhan uses sustainable farming practices on his 5.5 acres of land. He uses rainwater harvesting tanks to irrigate with between rains. He works to make his soil resilient to drought by increasing its ability to hold moisture through incorporating organic matter in soils and mulch cover. Most of his crops are perennials and are heirloom varieties that are tolerant to drought and heat, and can sequester more carbon in the soil. “And I try in every other way I can muster to reduce the carbon footprint of our production system,” he says.

In January 2011, Nabhan and other farmers, food educators, scientists and chefs released a report called State of Southwestern Foodsheds. The report outlines 40 tangible recommendations for improving water and food security in the Southwest, including support for more localized urban and peri-urban food production, as well as reassessment of state and federal agricultural subsidies that unintentionally damage the ability of poor communities to meet their nutritional needs.

Nabhan says that he conceptualized the report a decade ago to simply explore successes in sustainable agriculture and highlight their benefits. “It now appears,” he warns, “that such innovations may no longer be a luxury, but a necessity.”

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