business news in context, analysis with attitude

Fascinating piece in the New York Times the other day that trained a spotlight on the law of unintended consequences:

"America’s striking dietary shift in recent decades, toward far more chicken and cheese, has not only contributed to concerns about American health but has taken a major, undocumented toll on underground water supplies.

"The effects are being felt in key agricultural regions nationwide as farmers have drained groundwater to grow animal feed.

"In Arkansas for example, where cotton was once king, the land is now ruled by fields of soybeans to feed the chickens, a billion or so of them, that have come to dominate the region’s economy. And Idaho, long famous for potatoes, is now America’s largest producer of alfalfa to feed the cows that supply the state’s huge cheese factories.

"Today alfalfa, a particularly water-intensive crop used largely for animal feed, covers 6 million acres of irrigated land, much of it in the driest parts of the American West.

"These transformations are tied to the changing American diet. Since the early 1980s, America’s per-person cheese consumption has doubled, largely in the form of mozzarella-covered pizza pies. And last year, for the first time, the average American ate 100 pounds of chicken, twice the amount 40 years ago."

The Times writes that "most of America’s irrigated farmland grows crops that don’t directly feed humans but instead are used to feed animals or to produce ethanol for fuel. And most of that irrigation water comes from aquifers.

"Those crops have expanded into areas that don’t have enough water to sustain them, affecting some important aquifers across the country by contributing to groundwater overuse. Aquifer depletion for animal feed is occurring in places including Texas, the Central Valley of California, the High Plains in Kansas, Arizona and other areas that lack enough water from rivers and streams to irrigate the crops."

You can read the entire story here.

KC's View:

Not surprisingly, companies largely say that they are aware of the problem and are trying to act responsibly.  And politicians from the states where those companies operate - dependent as they are on donations from those companies - don't seem to be as alarmed as maybe they should be.

I've often written here, in a different context, that nobody really knows what anything costs - that for a variety of reasons and manipulations, the actual price of products large and small are unknown to most consumers.

But that's also true in this context - the environmental cost of how we eat and how the products we eat are made is largely unknown to most people.

In the end, it seems to me that the one thing we cannot afford is ignorance.  Vigilance about these costs - economical, environmental and even cultural - is a necessity.