You may have heard that California is in a drought, inspiring tongue-in-cheek articles like these: http://www.thewhiskeyjournal.com/nasa-finds-evidence-of-water-on-surface-of-california/ (“NASA finds evidence of water on surface of California”) and http://www.theonion.com/americanvoices/nasa-california-has-one-year-of-water-left-38224 (NASA finds that California has one year of water left). It’s always nice to laugh a little, but the reality of things is much more brutal.
My parents currently live in California in a 36% mandatory water reduction zone; when I go home to visit them, they tell me to shower at the gym because I’m not allowed to shower at their house. A culture, even a fad, of hyperawareness of water usage has developed in California. My parents have a big article taped to the fridge detailing how much water it takes to produce an ounce of different foods. Leaving California, I have been surprised by the rest of the country in (a) how aware people are of the drought, and (b) how much almonds are brought up as being particularly wasteful of water. Indeed, you may have heard the following statements:
- Agriculture uses 80% of California’s water.
- It takes a gallon of water to produce 1 almond.
- Almonds in California use more water than all indoor household use combined.
First, let’s look at the evidence. It’s cute to say “1 almond, 1 gallon”. But: how true is this? And, even more importantly, WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? Is a gallon a lot, or a little? On ScienceBlogs, Peter Gleick kindly does the math for us (http://scienceblogs.com/significantfigures/index.php/2015/05/28/the-california-drought-almonds-and-the-bigger-picture/) and finds this:
Each almond takes 1.6-1.7 gallons of water.
Okay, that sounds like a lot. But, let’s compare to other foods. From an article in Smithsonian, we get numbers like this…in gallons of water used to make an ounce of this food.
Wheat Bread: 14.44
Thus, it takes more than 100 gallons of water to make one ounce of beef! And where do almonds end up in this spectrum? Almonds need about 23 gallons of water per ounce (of almonds). We can vilify almonds, but the rest of the food in our fridge is using a whole lot of water, too.
So, is 1.6-1.7 gallons of water per almond a lot? No, not really.
The reason that so much water goes to almonds is that there are so many almond trees in California. And – unlike tomatoes, which farmers can fallow and thus stop watering when there are years of drought – you can’t stop watering trees, or else all of the money you put into making that giant tree is lost. Farmers work on low margins, and can’t afford to lose all their almond trees. So, even after 4 years of drought, farmers have to keep watering their trees.
What is the real problem here? When we hear that almonds are using more water in California than all the indoor household usage combined, it is easy to think, “Oh, those evil farmers that are growing almonds” or perhaps a more sympathetic and condescending, “Oh, those bumbling and idiot farmers who are foolishly growing almonds.” But these farmers are not acting foolishly at all. California produces 80% of the world’s almonds; there is a massive global market for almonds, which are extremely high-value. Almond agriculture has doubled in the past decade because they have such a high value, and simply make economic sense. And in periods of drought when they have limited water allocations, farmers often turn even more to almonds because of this high value. So yes: farmers are not foolish at all; they are businessmen responding to the larger political economy that demands almonds. That includes the massive economic machine that processes, advertises, and transports almonds around the world. That includes consumers: me in North Carolina, Lucas in Sweden, Wei in China, and probably you, wherever you are.
And when it comes down to it, agriculture does use a huge amount of water in California, but it is going towards a productive cause. Golf courses (unsurprisingly) use the most water of all non-agriculture businesses, using more than 110 billion gallons of water a year (for comparison, all hospitals in California use about 12 billion gallons of water a year). Environmental changes like droughts force us to think about who should win, and who should lose. We have to make hard decisions; and it is much easier to blame “others” like farmers than it is to think more strategically about what we want to sacrifice and what we think is important to keep. There is a long history of marginalized peoples like farmers being blamed for environmental destruction (the field of political ecology analyzes this very well), and the almond farmers in California are the new face of the same story.
OK, let’s be productive. What can you do about this?
- Know the facts. Almonds use much less water than meat, so if you want to make a statement and cut down on some water-using food item, think about cutting down on the things that use the most water.
- Talk the talk. Next time you hear somebody bringing up how wasteful almonds are, ask them to consider the plight of the farmers, caught in this larger political economy. Tell them your facts about almonds and water.
- Be a model citizen. If you live in California, help to turn the culture to an even more water-conscious one. Make an attractive xeriscape garden. Inspire your community to be more water-conscious. Write a low-water cookbook. Tell your friends how happy you are with your low-flow shower head.
- Be an innovator. If you’re an engineer or any other creator of things (art? apps? articles? advertising?) you can help solve the problem through new, better solutions. We need more innovation to help farmers keep their almond trees, and use less water. New innovations in irrigation have already lowered almond tree water usage by 33% per pound of almonds in the last 10 years. We need more of these innovations, and we need them to be cheap and appealing. Social marketing could play a role in this.
So, are almonds to blame for California’s drought? The answer, as usual, is “It’s complicated…” but also that:
- Almond farmers are responding to global demand for high-value product
- Per unit weight, almonds are really not using that much water anyway – especially compared to things like beef
I invite you to join the conversation as always.
If you’d like to read more about this, here are some good sources and further readings: