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Food security at historic watershed

The New Mexican
Posted: Monday, February 07, 2011

Whether you’ve noticed it or not, the farming capacity and food security of the border states are at an all-time low, and are likely to get worse before they are fully transformed to more sustainable and cost-efficient systems.

Recently, with a dozen experts from four states, we conceded that our capacity to feed ourselves and the hungriest of our neighbors has been compromised more than ever before. At the same time, experts assembled by Forbes magazine projected that as early as 2018, one in every five meals served in American cities will need to be raised on what are now barren parking lots and rooftops. Why are these dire predictions arising at this moment in time?

For starters, close to 25 million acres of prime farm and ranch lands have been converted to other uses since 1982.

A quarter of this farmland loss occurred in the four states along the Mexican border, with 925,700 acres lost in Arizona and 465,300 acres lost in New Mexico.

In addition, recent droughts have impacted the availability of water for irrigated food production, with Lake Mead recording its lowest-ever levels in 2010.

Other reservoirs used for irrigation have been filled to only 12 percent to 15 percent of their normal capacity, triggering water rationing in many places. As water scientist Peter Warshall reminds us, “food security requires irrigation security.” And yet, we’ve recently let most of our already scarce water supplies fuel the unbridled growth of cities, which have the highest known per-capita “water footprints” of anywhere in the world.

Farmers are also facing challenges to gaining adequate access to additional inputs necessary for crop production. Since 2007, the cost of electricity required on farms has risen 19 percent in New Mexico and 24 percent in Arizona. In 2011, crude oil prices are projected to begin at $95.17 a barrel, three times higher than they were in 2000. There are farm labor shortages being reported as well.

As the cost of farming and ranching rises, so does the cost of food, and it now has gotten out of the reach of many of the poor and hungry in our border region.

Arizona has recently suffered from the largest jump in poverty levels compared to any state in the union, and New Mexico was the third highest of any state.

Arizona now ranks as the second poorest state in the nation, while New Mexico is ranked third. Both are now ranked among the six worst states for dealing with childhood food insecurity. And so, it is not surprising that the number of residents in these states now relying on food banks and other forms of food relief hit an all-time high following the 2009 economic downturn.

Despite these discouraging trends, now, more than ever, borderlands residents are engaged in innovation and redesign of their foodsheds to resolve such problems.

While New Mexico has achieved more positive policy change, Arizona has excelled at market-driven solutions.

Arizona now has 72 farmers’ markets and New Mexico has 63 markets, many of which now allow low-income families to purchase fresh foods through the Snap program. There are now 29 community-supported agricultural projects in Arizona and 25 CSAs in New Mexico. More than 35 urban farms have cropped up in our metro areas.

More than ever before, our communities need to plan for a new food future, one that is sustainable, accessible and just. Much will be at stake if we do not now heed these warnings, bless and support the innovators, and provide real incentives for our farmers and ranchers to stay on the land and produce what they can.

Gary Paul Nabhan, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the University of Arizona Southwest Center, where he co-founded the Sabores Sin Fronteras Foodways Alliance. His new co-authored book on agriculture, food and climate change, Chasing Chiles, will be out in March.

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