The front page of The Australian on Wednesday (May 25th) included the headline: “Thirstiest crop: 21,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of rice.”
The figure was based on a “new CSIRO study, which found that of 135 industries analyzed, rice was one of the nation’s most costly – financially, socially and environmentally.”
The Rice Growers’ Association issued a media release, “If it was remotely true that it took 21,000 litres the Australian rice industry would use more water to grow a crop than currently even exists in the whole Murray-Darling system.”
(Based on the figures in The Australian, and given rice growers produce on average one million tonnes of rice a year, I calculate they would use 21,000 gigalitres of water! Unbelievable given 24,000 gigalitres is the average inflow into the entire Murray Darling system.)
Also on Wednesday, CSIRO issued a media release titled “Correction on water usage figures assigned to rice industry” that stated, “Industry sources note that the water intensity per kilogram of rice is between 1,500 and 2,000 litres per kilogram. We accept this figure.”
So how did our national newspaper get it so wrong?
According to the CSIRO media release, “in preparation of some promotional material, specifically the cover of the CD version of the Balancing Act report, an error was inadvertently made.”
But there are also problems interpreting the information in the CSIRO report.
The report states that “The water intensity of (rice) production is … 8,400 litres per dollar of final consumption.” (Interestingly this figure was revised down to 8,000 litres in the media release issued on Wednesday).
Given rice is selling at $0.31 per kg, I calculate that rice uses 2,604 litre per kilogram – based on the 8,400 litres per dollar figure.
This is far higher than the “accepted industry figure” of between 2,000 and 1,500 litres per kilogram!
The reports authors worked from the assumption that: “There is a general consensus that ‘leaving it all to market forces’ will not effectively serve the interests of our children’s children.”
Yet the report is couched in ‘dollars per unit of water’ terms, never mind how bizarre the result. Indeed because commodity prices fluctuate, the method as a comparison across the economy appears to be only valid for a particular point in time i.e. for any given year. For example, the price of rice has been dropping over the last few years – down from A$ 0.45 per kg in 1998-99 to $0.31 per kg in 2003-04. Using the CSIRO methodology and based on a water usage of 1,500 litre per tonne, when rice is selling at $0.31 then rice is using 4,838 litres per dollar of final consumption, while with rice selling at $0.45 then rice is using 3,333 litres per dollar of final consumption. And if the CSIRO accepts the industry figure of 2,000 litres per kilogram, with rice selling at $0.31, then rice is using 6,452 litres per dollar of final consumption. Crazy stuff!
Yet the report has been promoted as providing a “relatively simple presentation of highly complex issues” to enable people “who are interested in sustainability to move beyond decisions based on dollars and cents and enable them to make decisions based on a contribution to society, environment, and economy.”
No. It is more like rather a lot of game playing, and posturing, and then back-peddling when caught-out.
Interestingly journalists at our respected daily national newspaper were taken in, but then confused by the analysis. And how did they let the so very wrong 21,000 litres slip through the editorial process?
Then again it has been my experience that The Australian has been too quick, for too long, to print almost anything that is highly critical of agriculture in the Murray Darling Basin.
And brace yourself for a week of even worse, probably beginning tomorrow when Jared Diamond addresses the Sydney Writer’s Festival.