The Role of Agaves in Presilience at the Food/Water/Energy Nexus

“Our challenge is not only resilience, which is the power to rebound (re- ‘back’ + salire ‘to jump, leap’). Our challenge is also what we might call presilience, the courage to take this great, stumbling leap into a world unlike any we have ever seen, knowing that we will not be back.” — Kathleen Dean Moore, Great Tide Rising

The new IPCCC 2022 report on climate impacts projects that climate change is already causing widespread disruption of food production in every region in the world with just 1.1°C (2°Fof warming. To put that into perspective, greenhouse gas emissions from human activities since the 19th century (1850-1900) were responsible for approximately 1.1°C of warming,  but over the next 20 years, global temperature increases are expected to reach or exceed 1.5°C of warming.

As climate change advances in a manner that is making much of the world’s terrain hotter and drier, desert cities—particularly those on or near geopolitical boundaries—have become “laboratories for the future.” They are where cultural creatives MUST generate “just” innovations to assure equitable public access to water, energy and food security. These innovations will ultimately need to be applied in metro areas that have already become “urban heat islands” landscapes far beyond the deserts themselves.

At the same time, conflicts over scarce water, oil, and food supplies have already generated protests, uprisings, outright warfare, and diasporas in at least a dozen countries—consider the onset of Arab Spring and the current conflicts in Ukraine. As a consequence of these conflicts and climate-related disasters, many desert dwellers fleeing these war-torn or drought-stricken areas have recently crossed geopolitical borders to live as climate refugees in cities within far more arid landscapes than where they were born. In fact, there are more political, economic and climate refugees crossing borders than ever before in human history—an estimated 60 billion people—not counting individuals “internally displaced” within their country of origin.

The burgeoning populations of new refugees and others now residing in desert border towns are among those now generating and suffering from “urban heat islands” with far hotter temperatures and drier conditions than those in the surrounding countryside. In some cases, the ambient temperatures in some of these desert cities are now approaching the thresholds of human comfort and crop plants’ capacity to produce food. The summer of 2021 was the hottest on record in the U.S. and Mexico. In border towns such as Mexicali and Calexico, temperatures reached close to 123°F, topping 50.4°C for the first time in recorded history.

If you’ve never thought that our warm season food crops can reach their threshold for flowering and fruiting, think again. Most summer vegetable crops abort their blossoms and seed pods if temperatures in their leafy canopies exceed 95°F!  On top of the Colorado River basin reaching its worst level of water scarcity since dams were built to divert river water in to ditches and fields, many summer crops suffered from reduced yields simply because of heat waves.

Of course, there is no silver bullet or quick fix that can deal with all the drivers of climate change and human displacement. We can, however, focus on the drivers which are most likely to be halted or reversed through human activities over the short haul. In particular, we wish to focus on the food-water-energy nexus, and what food crops can simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions and crop consumptive water use.

Why zero in on these three intertwined factors as they are affecting borderlands and other cultural ecotones? By reducing fossil fuel and water use in food production, transport and processing, we can not only provide desert communities with presilience (fresh adaptive capacity), but actually slow or reverse climate change. If we can also plant crops such as agaves and prickly pear that can pull down more carbon while using less water to produce more edible and drinkable biomass, we can start to the tide.

We wish to employ such desert-adapted crops by innovating on and implementing the concepts of urban vertical farms, agrivoltaics, and water/nutrient harvesting for succulent perennial food production in arid zones. In other words, we wish to co-locate renewable energy production, rainwater harvesting off hard surfaces, and the production of water-conserving perennials on the same farmlands to provide farmers with multiple revenue streams while reducing their most costly inputs.

In 1961, food systems sequestered 27 percent of the world’s bio-capacity, but today they capture 40 percent of that global biological productivity. At least 10 percent of all fossil fuel use globally goes to agricultural tillage, water pumping, manufacture of agrichemicals, and food transport. More telling is that 80-90 percent of the food system’s fossil fuel use is in post-production harvesting, cleaning, transport, storage, processing, packaging, and preparation. If these activities in the food system can be redesigned to consume far less fossil fuel and fossil groundwater (or irrigation supplies from distant headwaters), humankind’s total carbon and water footprints can be significantly reduced.

We envision means to help both Indigenous Nations of the Colorado River watershed and refugees to its desert farmlands and cities. To creatively deal with the nexus of water, food, and energy issues now affecting their daily lives, we need to fit crops to the arid environments rather than giving deserts a costly but superficial “makeover.”

Our intuition is that once again in human history, necessity will be the mother of innovation, spawning community-based solutions on the margins of society that will be later be adopted and adapted by much of humanity within and beyond the third of the planet’s surface now classified as arid and semiarid lands.

One such innovation is the use of agaves and cacti for the production of nutraceutical foods and probiotic fermented beverages that can help combat one of the three most common causes of death in the deserts of the U.S. and Mexico: adult-onset diabetes.

As a matter of fact, cultivated plantations of agaves and cacti use only a fifth to half the water of other food and beverage crops to produce the same weight of edible biomass. Agave and prickly pears are not only hyper-efficient in their water use, but when planted in significant densities, they can draw down and store the dry weight equivalent of 12 to 24 tons of carbon per acre per year.

Agaves and their kindred succulents are ideal candidate crops for “slow agriculture” for a hotter, drier world.

By slowly but efficiently growing these desert succulent crops in a slow agriculture for “slow release” foods and drinks that stabilize blood-sugar levels in diabetes-prone desert dwellers, we will have killed four birds with one stone. Less water use. Less fossil fuel use. Less diabetes. Less climate change, and its attendant human-suffering.

However, such much-needed innovations will be generated, refined, funded and distributed only if universities, federal agencies, nonprofits, impact investors and civic organizations make it their priority to leverage significant change in a short period of time, rather than presuming that business as usual will take them where they want to be. To that end, we propose that Tucson become host to the first Center for Desert Agriculture and Climate Resilience in the U.S., pulling together talents and values from the public and private sectors, to serve both Indigenous and refugee communities with better food and better jobs in the agricultural sector than they have been afforded in the recent past.

It will take nothing less than a radical restructuring of the interactions among the education, business, and nonprofit sectors to generate and implement the innovations needed in time to avert the large-scale water and food insecurity, poverty and vulnerability to climate catastrophe that appear to be coming down the pike. As we focus on strengthening the water-energy-food nexus in a time of crisis, we wish to engage all sectors in desert border communities to forge solutions that will help us weather climate change.

Now is the time…unless you consider that the ideal time would have been 50 years before the present moment!  

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