Two weeks ago, on the five-hour drive from San Francisco to Ventura, CA, my hometown, we zipped through hills and fields in various shades of brown. That drive, which traces the old Royal Road linking Spain’s mission settlements, paints California’s latest drought in sunburned tones. Like so many contemporary climate events, our current dry spell is extreme. 2013 saw the least rainfall in California’s 163-years of recorded history as an American state, and tree rings suggest that recent precipitation may be the lowest since the 1500s. As of early September, nearly 60% of the state was suffering from “exceptional drought” – the most severe category on the scale.
Predictably, the parched landscape has prompted a flood of hand-wringing articles on where and how the state absorbs its scarce water – golf courses in the Palm Desert, expansive emerald lawns in Beverly Hills, and a surprising concentration of bottled water production (Dasani and Aquafina – owned by Coca-Cola and Pepsico, respectively – wrap California tap water in plastic and ship it across the country). To their credit, drought journalists increasingly focus on California’s $43 billion in annual farm production. In the last six months, The New York Times, Mother Jones and The Atlantic have all added their voices to a wave of local coverage, highlighting the 100 billion gallons of water shipped to China in the form of alfalfa, the risks to overflowing American produce aisles, and the 1.1 gallons of water required to grow each “demon almond,” in a state responsible for 80% of the world’s almond output. The two oranges I pulled off a roadside tree (delicious, by the way) before heading back to San Francisco likely absorbed ~25 gallons through their growing cycle (per the USGS).
The nutritional and food supply questions are real. California accounts for over 90% of the total U.S. production of almonds, walnuts, pistachios, grapes, tomatoes, broccoli and strawberries. Just Ventura County, where I grew up, is responsible for nearly a quarter of the American strawberry harvest.Market forces will naturally resolve some problems – high-margin fruit, nut and seed crops (technically, almonds are seeds) create space for investments in more efficient irrigation infrastructure and higher-yield techniques, while retail price hikes moderate demand and shift acreage from crops with lower dollar values per unit of water. Some changes are underway – cotton acreage, for example, has declined in recent years, supplanted by orchards and nut farms – but other economic trends lean against the curve. Alfalfa has become a bete noire for drought-watchers, and justifiably so. It is a thirsty crop – needing twice the water as corn, for example – and relatively low value in comparison to fruit, tomatoes or nuts. But alfalfa is primarily used for livestock feed, often to supplement pasturage for “grass fed” beef, and rising protein consumption in Asia has ensured strong demand for alfalfa which can be conveniently shipped from Pacific Rim farmlands, including California.
Step back from the brown fields along Highway 101, or from the dynamics of a specific agricultural market, and California simply looks like an extreme example of the global water resource conundrum. Our agriculture sector is larger, more valuable, and more water-intensive than in most countries (or other states). Some 80% of California’s available water resources flow into agriculture, as compared with only 14% destined for residential use, despite our penchant for golf courses and sprawling suburban housing tracts in the southern deserts; the global average is roughly 90% water allocation to agriculture. In California, with groundwater levels dropping sharply and precipitation unreliable, we are farming beyond our means. Science and management can help, delivering higher-yielding crop varieties and continuing productivity improvements, but shifting diets could move the needle farther and more quickly. We founded Chapul to introduce one option – cricket protein is dramatically more hydro-efficient than flagrantly wasteful beef and pork – but we are a tiny presence in an enormous food industry in need of revolutionary change. If you want to ease California’s troubles, worry less about low flow toilets, and more about that grass-fed burger on the menu.
(California agriculture photo courtesy of Jon Waterman)