As California’s epic drought continues, most of the state’s dwindling water supply is going to agriculture–including a hundred billions of gallons of water every year to alfalfa that feeds cows in places like China. Is it time for California to rethink what it grows?
Though the state recently passed mandatory water restrictions for the first time, the plan didn’t touch farmers. Some experts argue that policy needs to change, in order to deal with two related crises–the long-term challenge of a changing climate and the immediate problem of the current drought.
“Right now California growers are very proud of the fact that they’re growing food for America,” says Steve Shimek of the California Coastkeeper Alliance. “I appreciate that. But at what point are we going to start talking about are we growing artichokes, or are we growing lettuce and broccoli? Those are choices we need to make, and I think we’re going to get forced into making those choices.”
“Things like our tree crops that are very thirsty, and unadaptable to the ups and downs of the environment, we’re probably going to have to sacrifice those things,” he says. “That’s just the way it is. Those are tough choices, because if you make those choices some people are going to go out of business, and some people are going to lose jobs.”
The LA Times published a recent infographic of the thirstiest foods to produce per ounce. Meat tops the list (dairy, though not included on the chart, is equally bad), followed by legumes like lentils and chickpeas, with grains and certain vegetables, like asparagus, trailing behind.
Here are five crops that might be better to grow in places where it regularly rains.
A single serving of Greek yogurt takes 90 gallons of water to produce–and most of that water is used to grow alfalfa to feed cows. Meat has a huge water footprint for the same reason. In California, more water is used to use alfalfa than any other crop. Part of that goes directly to the state’s own dairy industry, the largest in the country. But much of it is also exported to countries like China at cheap prices.
“We’re essentially exporting huge amounts of water to other countries,” says Shimek. “That’s what it boils down to. I don’t have a problem exporting alfalfa. But I have a problem exporting the volume of water that it takes to grow that alfalfa.”
When cows aren’t eating hay, they’re usually eating directly from the field–a problem when it’s not raining. This report from University of California-Davis shows that irrigating pasture uses more water than any other crop in the state other than alfalfa. If farmers can’t afford to water grass, then they have to use feed. With unpredictable rainfall, does California really make sense as a place to raise cattle? The situation is also another argument for consumers to buy a little less meat and dairy.
Though some argue that the water-guzzling almond is unfairly demonized–it’s a nutritious food, and it helps farmers make more money than something like alfalfa–it also may not be a good fit for California over the long term. Almond crops use about 10% of the state’s water in a year, more than all of the people in Los Angeles. Like other tree crops (pistachios, for instance) it forces farmers into a long-term commitment to a water supply that may not always be available.
“Once you bring that tree into life, you’re now devoted to that tree and providing it with water, if you’re a grower, in a much longer time scale than our drought cycles here in California,” says Shimek. “The climate situation that we’re in requires us to move around from these long-lived perennial crops to annual crops, because we can be so much more adaptable.”
Like alfalfa, wheat and corn don’t earn farmers much money compared to crops like vegetables; they’re mostly used to make more feed for animals. But both require relatively large amounts of water. California farmers are already choosing to grow less because of the drought, and it’s arguable that neither should be grown in the state at all.
If you’ve ever flown over the Sacramento Delta, you’ve probably noticed the shimmering, mirror-like rice fields below. Though rice farmers have improved water efficiency in production, the crop still requires flooded fields, and it still ranks as one of the state’s most water-guzzling crops. Because of the drought, some farmers are now being offered more money to sell their water to cities like L.A. than they’d earn growing rice–and some are making that choice.
It isn’t clear when, or if, the state will act to discourage (or ban) certain water-intensive crops in California. For Shimek, part of the challenge is the long-standing political clout of agriculture, even though the industry represents only about 2% of the state’s economy. He also argues that consumers could make some choices to support a shift–primarily by choosing to eat a little less meat and dairy.
“It takes 35 gallons of water to make one of those little yogurt containers, and 90 gallons to produce a container of Greek yogurt,” he says. “We need some help out here in California–a lot of that dairy is coming from California cows. I’m not to the point where I’ve quit eating yogurt. But I’m not eating Greek yogurt anymore.”