January 20, 2006
According to the National Association of Farm Broadcasters, the top agricultural news story of 2005 was the sharp rise in energy prices that affected farmers' fuel and fertilizer costs. This is a story that could repeat itself in 2006, although it seems unlikely that energy prices will ratchet up as much as the past year.
While it was not necessarily front page news in 2005, the world supply of fresh water is of growing concern. In all likelihood, water will supplant energy as our most critical natural resource within the next 15 years. The United Nations has already predicted that by 2020, water, and not oil, will be a source of conflicts in the world.
If this projection is right, that's not good for agriculture because farmers and ranchers are even more dependent on water than they are on affordable, reliable sources of energy. And while there are substitutes for fossil fuels, no one has claimed to have found a substitute for water. Desalination on a large scale is probably in the same category as hydrogen fuel for nowit's a long way off.
One bit of good newswe are not dependent on the troubled Middle East or other major trouble spots for our water resources. In fact, The Great Lakes contain one-fifth of the world's freshwater resources.
However, a story buried in the back of most newspapers at the end of 2005 announced an agreement signed by the governors of eight Great Lakes states, along with Ontario and Quebec. If approved by legislative bodies in Canada and the United States, the pact would ban new or increased water diversions outside the drainage area.
About 20 years ago, the American Farm Bureau Federation was approached about supporting a plan to move vast quantities of water down to the western states from Canada, but the enormous costs and staunch opposition expected from environmental groups sunk the idea. Unfortunately, a good opportunity to secure water for parched areas of this country was passed up.
Today, Canada is much more aware of the value of its water, probably the largest supply of fresh water in the world. A former premier of the western province of Alberta has called upon the House of Commons to take a stand against any large-scale water transfers to the United States.
Maclean's, a Canadian magazine, stirred up the issue recently by saying that Canada should sell water to the United States "before they take it." But Canada's huge surplus of water may be an illusion anyway. Most of the water to spare is likely be found in rivers far up north and those rivers run to the north.
Meanwhile, China is experiencing serious water problems because of drought and polluted groundwater. A tidal phenomenon caused by the drought, known as salt tides, is threatening water supplies in southern China. It could be a lack of water and not energy that throws a monkey wrench in China's economic engine.
American farmers have a keen interest in the worldwide water situation, and will need to monitor it. For one thing, agriculture's water is a target of thirsty cities, and farmers are far outnumbered by those who want that water.