Richard McNider & John Christy:
THE United States faces two major security challenges this century. Both involve water.
The increasing demand for water in the Western United States in an era of diminishing supply has put America’s highly efficient agricultural system in jeopardy. At the same time, our nation’s energy demands have led President Bush and Congressional leaders from both parties to call for more domestic production of biofuels like corn ethanol. Some agricultural experts fear that the country does not have enough water and land to both replace the declining agricultural production in the arid West and expand the production of biofuels.
There is, however, a sustainable solution: a return to using the land and water of the East, which dominated agriculture in the United States into the 20th century.
Until the middle of the 1900s, much of our country’s food and fiber was produced east of the Mississippi River. Maine led the nation in potato production in 1940, and New York wasn’t far behind. The South, including Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, dominated cotton. Large amounts of corn were grown in almost every state for consumption by the local livestock and poultry. Regional vegetable markets, especially in the mid-Atlantic states, served the population centers of the East.
By 1980, Western irrigation and improvements in transportation had largely destroyed this Eastern system of agriculture. Irrigated cotton in Arizona, California and Texas displaced the cotton economy of the Deep South. Idaho and Washington became the nation’s major potato producers. Corn production became more concentrated in the Midwest.