We have seen the real cause of the California drought, and it’s one crunchy inch tall. One gallon of water to grow a single nut? BAN THEM ALL, writes everyone. But almond outrage is misplaced. We shouldn’t stop eating any fruit or vegetable due to how much water it takes to grow it. Especially when there actually is a crop that’s stealing California’s water.
After the announcement of the tougher mandatory water restrictions (which followed the wimpy voluntary water restrictions), there was much outcry that these measures were still not enough, your dead lawn/more efficient dishwasher/refusal to shower for a month won’t do a damn thing because 80 percent of California’s water is consumed by agriculture.
And—as your favorite Facebook friend likes to keep reminding you—a full 10 percent of California’s water is used to grow almonds. You know, ALMONDS, THE DEVIL’S NUT.
It seems like a simple mathematical equation: Less almonds=more water. But should you really stop buying and eating almonds if you want to help the drought? While I can’t answer that question for you personally, I think there are ways to measure the societal and economic value of the food we grow with our water: Does it benefit the people of California and does it benefit the state of California?
If we line them all up, one crop in particular emerges as the loser. (Hint: It’s not almonds.)
California’s job is to grow food
No other state is feeding the US like California. The state grows about half of the country’s fruits and vegetables. Many fruits and nuts, in particular, are pretty much only grown in California: Essentially all the apricots, dates, figs, olives, pistachios, and walnuts grown in the country are produced here. California not only grows essentially all the almonds grown in the US, but about two-thirds of all the almonds grown on the entire planet.
Just because 80 percent of California’s water is being used to grow food doesn’t mean it’s being sloshed all over the Central Valley in some kind of blingy agricultural music video montage. But that’s the imagery that starts to churn in our heads when we assign value to a food based on how many gallons of water it takes to produce it.
Oddly, almonds aren’t even in the infographic (they’d be somewhere around asparagus).
But OMG, would you look at that, chickpeas are the new almonds!
Wait—don’t throw out your hummus.
“Water-hungry” is really the wrong way to think about food. Instead we should look at the value of the food produced.
A different way to value water
No judgment here, but hypothetically, how many almonds are you eating per day? A handful? That’s about one ounce, or 23 almonds total (I counted). That’s 23 gallons of water.
Sounds like a lot, I know. But that’s really not a lot when it comes to producing food.
It could take anywhere from 200 to 1000 gallons of water to grow only the nine daily servings of fruits and vegetables recommended by the USDA for the 2,000-calorie per day American diet. That doesn’t take into consideration any meat or dairy, which could easily double that number. Or the various processing methods that shape those ingredients into Aged White Cheddar Pirate’s Booty or Pepperoni Totino’s Pizza Rolls.
The LA Times’ water footprint app gives you these numbers with very little other context about the foods themselves, and this might deter people from eating certain foods because they’re perceived to be “thirsty.”
But Californians should not be eating less of California’s food, we should be eating more of it.
A better way to think about a food’s value might be to think about how a gallon of water could translate into calories that most efficiently feed us humans. Is that gallon of water producing a crop with a fair amount of protein or does it have a high glycemic index that means our bodies burn through it quickly? Are there essential vitamins or nutrients? How efficiently could a gallon of water feed a certain amount of people? Does it require processing to eat it, which could create more water waste?
Raw almonds (which do have to be hulled) actually deliver fairly awesome nutritional value per serving. 23 gallons of water will get you 163 calories, 14 grams of fat, and 6 grams of protein. You’d be hard-pressed to find a delicious, locally grown healthy snack that will keep you full for an hour or so with a water footprint of less than 23 gallons.
Except maybe chickpeas.
So about those almonds
One consistent note in almost all the articles about how ALMONDS ARE EVIL 666 is that producing almonds gobbles more water than pretty much any other use in the state.
The current wave of anti-almond sentiment can be traced back to Mother Jones, which has published six stories about the awfulness of almonds over the last year, invariably including this chart each and every time:
Obviously a chart like this is going to make some people freak the fuck out. Almonds use more water than all of LA? But this argument leaves out something important about almonds: Their economic heft—or what California (and the US) gets for that water.
Almonds are pricey. You’ve seen this for yourself at the supermarket. Your 23-gallon-of-water snack is going to cost you about about $9 per pound of nuts. But that’s also what makes them lucrative to grow. It also gives farmers a very good incentive to conserve as much water as possible through farming methods like drip irrigation ( they have to pay for water, too).
Now think about it like this: According to a report commissioned by the state’s almond board, almonds made the state of California $11 billion last year. That is an incredible amount of money. A lot of that is because almonds are big at the moment, partially because of the demand for dairy-free alternatives like almond milk, but also because they are popular everywhere, not just in the US. So another reason California is making a lot of money on almonds is because the state is being incredibly successful in selling them all over the world.
Almonds might take 10 percent of the state’s water, but as the same report notes, they’re generating about 15 percent of the state’s total farming value and almost 25 percent of the agricultural exports from the state.
So here’s a perfect example of how a crop can add value. In addition to creating societal value (producing a nutritious food) it’s contributing positively to the state’s—and therefore the country’s—economy.
Farmers are essentially converting water into a healthy food which can be consumed in a variety of ways to make money and jobs for the people who live here. Isn’t that the kind of food we should be producing in an economically devastating drought?
That can’t be said for one crop that California farmers are growing.
So about that alfalfa
If you’re like me, you haven’t thought about alfalfa much since since 1987 when you ordered a California Club sandwich that came with alfalfa sprouts.
Alfalfa is a member of the pea family. It’s what is fed to cows and other livestock. Alfalfa is the fuel for making beef and dairy products. And its widespread production has become a flashpoint issue for groups that want to reduce the consumption of meat and milk in the state.
This chart was floated around the internet over the weekend. It comes from a report by the Department of Land Air and Water Resources at the University of California, Davis. The orange and yellow are bars are what’s grown to feed animals, not humans.
By far, the most water used for a single agricultural product in the state of California is used to grow alfalfa. About 15 percent, maybe more.
But going back to measuring the societal and economic value of water: No matter what you think about humans consuming animal products, at least it’s being put to use to provide caloric value, and the jobs to produce it, to Californians, right? All that alfalfa needs to be grown to produce all the beef and dairy in the state of California?
In dairy production, California leads the US, with about an $8 billion business annually, so yes to that.
But California only raises two percent of the country’s beef. And the number of cattle producers is actually going down (partially because of the drought).
Yet over a million acres in the state are estimated to be dedicated to growing alfalfa.
How does that make sense? Why are we using more and more of our water to grow hay?
When I visited the Port of Los Angeles a few months ago, as authorities rattled off the top exports of the largest port in the US, one stuck in my head: Animal feed. I stared out at the containers stacked up around me. California was sending animal feed abroad?
In 2011 the Port of LA moved 2,398,113 metric tons of animal feed off our shores. Most of that is California-grown alfalfa. In some parts of the state, it’s about a third of what is grown annually.
Look at this report using Department of Commerce figures which shows how demand from places like the UAE have exploded over the last few years—which have also been the years of extreme and exceptional drought in California. Now look at how much more alfalfa has been going to China. This is due to the trade deficit with the US, which hit a record high last year. The US is importing so many manufactured goods from China that the containers are often going back empty. It’s a steal to ship anything in them. It is actually cheaper to ship alfalfa to Beijing than it is to truck it from one side of the state to the other. This isn’t improving the economic standing of the US.
The equivalent of 100 billion gallons of water per year is packaged up in shipping containers and floated over the Pacific Ocean.
Californians don’t get any healthy local food, and California doesn’t get a healthy local economy.
These countries don’t have the water or the space to grow alfalfa, and California is sacrificing both to feed their growing penchant for beef and milk. Effectively they have outsourced their own droughts to California. Growing Asia-bound alfalfa is by far the poorest use of our resources no matter which way you slice it. And soon, it might be too dry here to grow it at all.
Suddenly, almonds are starting to look really, really good.
Sources: UNESCO water footprint report; Port of Los Angeles; FAOSTAT; BBC; Irrigation of Agricultural Crops in California; Assessment of California’s Water Footprint; LA Times; Department of Land Air and Water Resources at the University of California, Davis; The Economic Impacts of the California Almond Industry