This week we have been discussing The Effects of Energy Prices on Groundwater Extraction in Agriculture in the High Plains Aquifer by L. Pfeiffer and C_Y.C. Lin (2014) (available here) as part of the BSUFN series of reading discussion groups.
This reading falls under BSUFN’s special interest group (SIG) on the Global Food Nexus which considers the relationships between food, energy, water, and environment gloally.
This is a summary of the points we discussed:
- Those of us attending the discussion group agreed that the paper makes a lot of assumptions and the research knew what findings it was going to find, so set out a way to obtain these findings. The questions which the paper didn’t ask or address at all are the questions which are most interesting and important.
- The findings and conclusion of the research were obvious – it is common sense that any business in any sector would change their practices in response to changes in price of the necessary inputs (in this case the cost of energy to pump water for irrigation).
- The paper didn’t present any recommendation from the findings and didn’t address whether there are particular policy choices which could limit the negative impact and/or increase the positive impact of energy price rises on food production. There was no consideration of formal or informal policy involved in the complex relationships of the food-energy-water-environment nexus, at international, nationa, state, or local scale.
- The paper clearly states that the recharge of the groundwater aquifer is very low – much less water is being added to the aquifer through infiltration per year than is being extracted from wells for farming, domestic and industrial use. Although stating this clearly the paper doesn’t mention this being unsustainable in the medium- to long-term. As such, the paper overlooks another of the dynamics of producing water-intensive crops such as soya and alfalfa which are used as livestock feed. There is no questioning of the sustainability of the system in relation to water use, only in relation to energy prices.
- The United States of America (USA) is the biggest grain exporter in the world so a change or reduction in exports could have a significant knock-on effect in other countries. For example, Saudi Arabia is an arid country so cannot produce as much grains as wetter areas. Saudia Arabia are ceasing wheat production and import much of their grains for consumption. Should the USA export less because of shifts in production patterns or reduced production due to energy prices, there could be significant stresses and feedbacks within the global food system.
- The discussion then address dynamics of the global food system and economy. Very little food roduced actually gets traded, it is mostly consumed locally (except for predominantly dryland countries such as Saudi Arabia). There is a relationship between water extraction and trade which means that in some semi-arid areas it makes financial sense for the farmer to grow water intensive vegetables because of the higher price they will receive for their goods.
- Conversation then moved away from the content of the paper under discussion to a more global consideration of the food nexus. In particular this included discussion of ways in which smallholder farmers in semi-arid Northern Ghana respond and adapt to reduced availability of water due to drought.
- In general, those who contributed to the discussion felt that the paper had not gone far enough in considering the effects of energy price rises on groundwater extraction for irrigation. The global food nexus is much more complex and local action taken in Kansas (discussed in the paper) could contribute to an impact on the global food system. The global food nexus includes issues of policy, politics, ecoomics, and society, as well as food-energy-water-environment.