Food Grows Where Water Flows

Published on May 24th, 2014

The Huffington Post  helpfully informs us that “if you like to eat, you should really be worried about California’s drought.”

Even those of us who aren’t particularly fond of eating (a vanishingly small percentage) need to eat just to survive. Thus, everyone should be concerned about the impact of California’s drought on food production, supplies and prices. 

The Huffington Post points out that California has the largest agricultural sector in the entire country – worth $45 billion in annual sales. Our state produces enormous quantities of food, but this phenomenal productivity uses enormous quantities of water.  Therein lies the rub.

In 2013, California had the lowest amount of recorded annual rainfall since record-keeping began back in the 1840’s. Worse still, 2013 may actually have been the single driest year of the last 500 years, according to tree ring analysis. This ruthless drought is expected to grip the state for the rest of the year, though we might – might – be on the verge of salvation from a particularly strong El Niño about to burst out of the South Pacific. 

Generally, El Niño impacts California by increasing rainfall, a very welcome development, but also flooding, landslides, and coastal erosion, which are most unwelcome, especially on hillsides stripped bare of protective vegetation by wildfire.

Last year, the University of California Press published a book entitled The West Without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us About Tomorrow by paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram and geographer and environmental biologist Frances Malamud-Roam of UC Berkeley.   

Author Ingram says that going back millennia, droughts have lasted for multiple years if not decades. Indeed, some dry periods endured for more than a century. The 20th century was particularly mild in California; in other words, it was a wetter than average century, and the state’s growth and development boom occurred under these optimal conditions, and we tacitly but naively assumed these conditions were the norm. 

California is a land of superlatives and extremes, and in keeping with this pattern, its historic climate might be summed up as one of “extreme droughts and extreme floods.”

Now global warming appears to be piling on, as it were, making conditions even more extreme. 

In the meantime, crops continue to guzzle water – lots of it. Producing a single pound of potatoes requires 119 gallons of water. One pound of rice needs 450 gallons, while a pound of lettuce uses 30. Beef, dairy, and poultry production are even more water-intensive, because they involve an additional step (feeding plants to animals rather than directly to humans). Every gallon of milk needs 880 gallons of water for its production, a dozen eggs 636 gallons, and a pound of beef 1,800. It’s staggering.       

It’s been estimated that in 2014, farmers will probably not plant crops on 12% of the land cultivated last year. Lost revenues on this decline in acres planted and foregone production may amount to $5 billion. That’s billions in lost wages to farmworkers, food processers and truckers. The drought bites.    

Over the long term, the larger California’s population grows, the more food it will need, and the more farmland will be converted into subdivisions or idled because water needed by crops is needed even more by all the new residents. 

Where everyone’s food will come from and whether food prices will be affordable are open questions. 

The hard realities and tough choices Californians are facing with regard to population and resources – including water and food – are but a microcosm of what humanity as a whole is confronting ever more sharply as the Age of Limits envelopes us.

Californians and humanity will certainly persevere, but if we want to live well rather than merely survive we need to be smarter and more realistic, adjust our expectations, and make those tough choices.      

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