Eating the California Drought

drought map April 21 2015

The drought situation in California is finally hitting the mainstream press, and with it the food shaming has begun.  Buoyed by often inaccurate statistics, almonds, alfalfa and avocados have been on the hit list.  I have to wonder if writers are just picking from the top of the alphabet, and will be working their way downward in the coming weeks.  Rice, cotton, grapes, fruit and other crops are also big water guzzlers.

Whether you eat California produce or not — and nearly all of us do, either directly or indirectly in prepared foods — the ongoing drought in California impacts the quantity, quality and price of produce across the nation and even around the globe.  It is likely to get worse this year as strict water restrictions go into effect before harvest on top of already water-starved farms.  California farming is a $46 billion industry that produces nearly half of the food crops we eat in this country.  Even the most ardent and dedicated locavore will see the price and selection of local crops shift in response.

Should you change your buying habits?

Blaine Hanson, UC Davis
Credit: Blaine Hanson, UC Davis

The food shaming, whether warranted or not, may prompt consumers to choose food products differently, even when they can afford the higher prices of some of the crops.  Major shifts in consumer buying habits will affect not only pricing, but how much of the products get exported overseas and will affect available supply in the coming years.  A large almond boycott, for example, might prompt farmers to bulldoze the long term investment in their orchards and switch to another crop.  Grapes, a likely replacement crop, uses nearly as much water.  But water is not the only issue at stake.  A switch to row crops will usually use less water since they do not require year-round irrigation, but row crops also do not stabilize the soil like an orchard does, and may contribute to top soil erosion.

For this reason, I do not recommend that consumers pick and choose individual foods to avoid in response to media coverage.  The “solution” arrived at by farmers desperate to stay in business may not be more sustainable or beneficial overall.

That doesn’t mean consumers shouldn’t push for beneficial change by using their purchasing dollars.  We absolutely should.

Effective Consumer Changes

  • Buy Regional Fruits and Vegetables – Here in the southeast, we have ample rainfall, averaging 55″ per year.  Many farmers here produce crops with no supplemental irrigation, and those that do are usually not tapping into dwindling aquifers.
  • Eat less meat – Americans love our meat, and most of us eat far too much of it for our health: three times the worldwide average.  Feedlot meat production takes an unsustainable amount of water.  Forages and alfalfa grown for livestock animals dwarfs the water usage of any other crop in California.  Reduce meat portion sizes, practice meatless meals or days in your household, turn scraps and bones into broth or as flavorings for other dishes, and above all don’t waste any.  When you buy meat, get to know your farmer and purchase pasture-raised beef and pork, never feedlot meat.
  • Reduce dairy consumption – Like meat, mass dairy production is unsustainable, for all the same reasons.  California produces 20% of the dairy in the United States.  Skip the mass-produced hunks of cheap cheddar and enjoy smaller portions of flavorful artisanal cheese.

If it seems cruel to penalize already struggling California farmers and unemployed farm workers by not buying their products, remember that the scale of food production in California was already unsustainable in its use of water, despite the fact individual farmers were (and are) using their resources very efficiently.  The farmers are not the villains, but barring major scientific breakthroughs or radical changes in how the state handles and allocates water, the current drought has merely advanced the day of reckoning for agriculture in the high desert.