California’s drought: the meat of the matter

Tina Pai/Senior Staff

“No snow whatsoever,” reads the official California Department of Water Resources’ report of the April 1 measurements at the Phillips snow course 90 miles east of Sacramento. The Sierra snowpack, which during normal years provides 30 percent of California’s water, is at its lowest level since 1950. These numbers mean a lot more than just a canceled ski trip to Tahoe this spring.

Neither this finding nor Gov. Jerry Brown’s order for a 25 percent decrease in statewide municipal water consumption is an April fool’s joke. The drought that has ravaged California for almost four years has finally gone from being an issue expressed only by  public bathroom posters to becoming an environmental crisis that has residents of the Golden State preparing for “the worst.”

What does the governor’s order mean for the average Californian? Well, if you’re building a new home, you’ll need to install a drip-irrigation system for any landscaping needs. You’ll continue to have to do without the vibrant green lawns and golf courses of Palm Springs. You should also break out the Excel spreadsheet, as your family’s utilities budget will probably need a makeover in the wake of water agencies’ new pricing structure.

Take a second look at the mandate and you’ll have noticed a curious exemption from this new round of water regulations — what Adam Scow, the director of the advocacy group Food & Water Watch, called the “elephant in the room.”

Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of California’s water consumption. Providing nearly half the domestic supply of fruits and vegetables, California’s agricultural sector is one of the largest on Earth. Critics of Brown’s mandate are quick to point out that agricultural water use was spared any cutback. It’s difficult for the people of Hollywood or Silicon Valley to feel like their 3-minute showers are counting for anything more than a drop in the bucket when they know that their everyday water use accounts for less than a quarter of the state’s total resources.

On the other hand, some 17,000 farmworkers are out of work amid reductions in water allotments from state and federal agencies. Rising water prices and 400,000 acres of fallow farmland cost farmers an estimated $1.5 billion last year. So how do you further reduce agricultural water supplies?

As Joel Nelsen, the president of California Citrus Mutual, frankly asked, “How do you take a reduction below zero?”

To answer his question, both agricultural and personal choices have to change. Consumers need to accept fundamental modifications to behavior that go beyond neglecting the backyard’s tulips. A closer look at California’s agricultural sector reveals that the most irrigated crop is alfalfa.

Useless for human consumption, this grass serves one purpose: to feed cows. The most water-intensive crop in California’s agricultural portfolio is farmed en masse for the ultimate purpose of supplying consumers with meat and dairy products.

To the dismay of bacon-loving environmentalists everywhere, veganism is a tangible part of the solution to California’s water crisis. The amount of water needed to produce 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of animal protein is 100 times what is needed to produce the same amount of grain protein. In other words, 1 pound of California beef requires about the same amount of water you would use taking an average-length shower. Every day. For six months.

If consumer demand for meat and dairy products in California were reduced, alfalfa farming would naturally decline. Less water would be needed for agriculture, likely sparing farmers the financial stress of mandated regulations.

It’s clear that there is no single solution to the most severe drought in the history of our state. In part, this is because individual solutions aren’t suited for collective problems (read climate change and industrial agricultural practices). But there are many steps consumers and agricultural providers can take to help conserve California’s water. The best ones are those that reinforce the other. Given that agriculture is a primary reservoir of California’s water allocation and that residents are the consumers of those water-intensive agricultural products, it makes sense to change consumptive practices. Brown’s mandate doesn’t mention agriculture or personal dietary choices, but it should.

Without counting the cheese, the Double-Double In-N-Out burger you grabbed on the way home from work required more than 600 gallons of water to produce. Keep in mind that as you hop out of the shower, smiling because you cut your usual shower time in half, you would need to forgo an additional 38 showers to offset the burger still digesting in your stomach. A veggie burger looks like better insurance for next year’s trip to Tahoe than turning off the sprinklers.

Amelia Sadler is a rising sophomore at UC Berkeley studying operations research and management science.

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  • s randall

    A closer look at California’s agricultural sector reveals that the most irrigated crop is alfalfa.

    Useless for human consumption, this grass serves one purpose: to feed cows. The most water-intensive crop in California’s agricultural portfolio is farmed en masse for the ultimate purpose of supplying consumers with meat and dairy products.

    Alfalfa is a “cover crop.” I grew up on a farm, and I never knew anyone that grew alfalfa continuously. It is rotated with other crops to enrich soil. It’s a legume, so it is used to add nitrogen to the soil. The fact that it has value as animal feed is a bonus, but it’s primary use is to enrich soil for other primary crops.

  • Mark Talmont

    Much truth here, the video “Cowspiracy” is an informative point of view on these matters. Beyond just the water issue, the plain physics of energy transfer are against animal production. It’s irritating that some of the “warming” alarmists have a conspicuous tendency to ignore this while railing against fossil fuels. Depending on which outputs you compare, eating the primary production instead of feeding it to animals and eating that ranges from 4 to 10 time as efficient (though I saw some literature from soy producers claiming it’s 16X comparing soy to beef).

    But everybody isn’t going to want to be vegan and some people probably couldn’t do it at all. Different people are built for different fuel mixes (ie ecto/meso/endo/ morphic body types) and some people need a more intense nitrogen (protein) fix for their neurochemistry to work. But as a society we are ridiculously wasteful.

    The particulars of the water issue are complicated and involve a Byzantine web of federal, state, and local regulatory structures. At this time the state and feds are grabbing some of the water from the Merced, Stanislaus, and Tuolumne rivers that would otherwise go into ag production (this is to flush out the Delta over the fish issues endlessly litigated in federal court and re-legislated in D.C.) Farm incomes will fall and degrade the tax bases of the already-poor counties affected.

    No matter what we do, meat is going to get more expensive. Supposedly at this time the production of chicken has surpassed eggs in efficiency terms but the long-term prospects for mass animal operations are questionable, see the bird flu crisis that hit the midwest recently.

  • Uwe

    It’s interesting that authors like this one always jump from one extreme to the other – namely from eating a pound of meat/day to going vegan. Americans eat on average 220lbs of meat a year (that’s the statistic, so deduct kids, elderly, vegetarians etc. and you end up at pretty much a pound per day), have 3 eggs a day and gulp down tons of dairy from ice cream to yogurt and milk. None of that would have to be produced in California and it wouldn’t if the water wasn’t pretty much free for those operations. Wisconsin and similar states are so much better suited for large grazers like cows, but we use these areas to grow genetically engineered corn for fuel and junk-food production.

    I fully agree that producing dairy and beef in a semi arid region is stupid. Same goes for nuts. Those crops have no business in California, particularly since they make less than 5% of the state product but consume more than half of the state water.
    All those in favor of desalination: do the math. Desalination would work for personal use, but not for water wasting agriculture. Just think about how much salt you would produce which is either dumped someplace or washed back into the ocean. We’re talking billions of tons of salt a year (ocean water has about 3% salt). Simply not doable on the scale needed to support greedy farming corporations often not even headquartered in California.
    It would however help a lot if people would simply eat half the dairy and meat they do now. It would help even more if Mr. Brown would do what’s needed and charge higher water prices for water intensive crops so farmers grow beans (300 gal / lb) instead of cows (2000 gal / lb).

    • Mark Talmont

      Those nut trees (and stone fruits as well) can’t be grown just anywhere. They need a peculiar combo of warm growing season with a chilly dormant period or else, no product.
      Nuts have been a profit center drawing more plantings because the market for them in Asia has been growing and this brings in hard cash, the buyers just pay for it and it isn’t mixed up with any of the complicated federal intervention programs. Most ag products are far from the “free market”. California is the biggest dairy producer in the nation and this would never have happened without government regulations that had the effect of drawing investment into that area.

  • Gregory Weaver

    If only the Free Market were as efficient as the Soviet Union life would be splendid. Seriously that is the argument this author makes? If this is the rubbish the average California reads and believes about modern day water politics in the western United States its no wonder California is in Dire Straights.
    For nearly 40 years Californians water infrastructure has been neglected every thing from dams and diversion canals to waste water recycling and drip Irrigation were at best given lip service ad at worse out right ignored. And now the chicken has come home to roost and this Neo Hippy Journalist is suggesting everybody in California make the move to Soy Burgers? Seriously do you not understand the Global Free Market movement that California is a part of? If you every body in California simply switch to eating green the beef produced in California would simply be shipped else where.
    If you are going to waste valuable brain space at least think through your argument and how it relates not just to the individual but also the whole. You may like the Idea of being a Vegan but the whole does not. Thus the real solution must account for the desires of the whole. Simply saying just become a vegan and the water problem is solved is simplistic and childish. The whole says they want meat and thus meat will be supplied. And thus any lasting solution must account for this want.
    There for any real solution to California’s water problem must seek to increase the supply that means water conservation, reclamation and desalination. Any other solution will simply export California’s water problems and probably to so poor unsuspecting thrid world person to ignorant to realize the corporation that just moved in is only their to make a quick buck.

    • David Froning

      Free markets are most effective when consumers are well informed. Unfortunately, animal agriculture has some of the most powerful groups of lobbyists in their corner. For that reason, the public will continue to be misinformed and animal agriculture will continue to be subsidized by our government.
      If the average consumer understood the cost of animal agriculture in terms of water use, land use, greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, etc. they would probably make different decisions at the supermarket. I doubt they’d go vegan, but they’d probably cut back on animal products, which would help California and the rest of us.

      • Gregory Weaver

        I doubt very much ignorance is the cause for people making bad choices. The era of the 24 hour news cycle and the internet doesnt really give people the right to claim ignorance. The do what they do for selfish reasons only that is at the heart of the free market.
        The good news for the environment is that we are running out of oil that is almost 1/3 of all ghg no longer being pumped into the atmosphere. The good news is that wind power is now at cost parity with coal and in a decade solar will be too. So we will curb another 1/3 of our emissions just because the cleaner alternatives wull be cheaper. The good news is businesses are looking for ways to reduce their production inputs and waste streams. All of these action lower the impact each person will have towards the environment.
        My point wasnt to say we should do nothing for the environment but rather we should look for ways to allow people to live their lives the way they want to live them with the least impact to the environment as possible. Forcing people usually end in outright rebellion.

        • David Froning

          You think the 24 news cycle keeps people informed? Not if the information doesn’t get reported. Animal agriculture is the #1 cause of drought, greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, ocean dead zones, and species extinction. If our kids’ cafeterias posted this information on the walls instead of a bunch of celebrities with milk mustaches, I think we’d see some behavioral changes.

          • Gregory Weaver

            You are falling into the same trap that environmentalist have been falling into for nearly 40 years. They are demanding behavior change which almost never happens barring a critical event. You should look for ways to produce the things people demand with the least environmental impact possible. No offense ment but the writer of this article is at least sugesting product replacement which is a much easier sale than outright behavioral change.
            As for me thinking people know the problems that is being caused by the meat they consume well yes they are at least nominally aware but being aware and caring are two different problems so yes they are aware they just dont care.
            To put this into perspective i took a microbiology course in college i got to see all the disease organisms that undercooked meat carries yet i still eat meat why because i like meat and the reward outweighs the risk. The same argument holds true for the environmental impacts the rewards outweigh the risks. Until you and other environmentalist change the equation me and the majority will keep eating meat.
            I also like soy burger soy milk and ive even tried and liked soy cheese substitute but i dont eat any of this on the regular because the cost compared to the animal based products is relatively price prohibitive. Yet we could subsidize these products to reduce the cost yet we dont why? Because people just dont care and wont until a critical event forces change. As for those people that do care they are to busy demanding people stop eating meat yet they do nothing to lower the cost of the alternatives which would be a far better mechanism for change.
            You believe that simple advertisements are going to be enough to force change and yet look at cigarettes. America has been placing anti smoking adds for almost 30 years and yet we stll have millions of smokers. Why? Because the reward out weighs the risk. We could as a society change this through disincentives i.e. tax policy but we dont. The politicians who set the so called sin tax have set it at a rate to maximize tax revenue not maximize the no smoking policy they so profess. And so people grumble but keep on smoking. And those that dont smoke dont care.
            And while there are ignorant people in the country most are aware and most just dont care. So you can scream global warming until you are blue in the face but until people are critally effected they wont change.

          • David Froning

            I think we generally agree that it boils down to money and information. There are a lot of points in your comment, so I’ll just address them as bullets.

            1. You said, people are at least nominally aware. I don’t believe they are. Watch Cowspiracy and see if you feel like you were already aware of the environmental impact of animal agriculture. If you still think you were, then you’re better off than 99% of the public. Even Green Peace, WWF, etc. is too worried about lawsuits and lost donors to talk about this stuff.

            2. You said, we need to change the equation. I agree. The keys to this are a) stopping the subsidies that make meat so cheap and b) stopping the blatant misinformation in the market. Making those two changes will allow for a true free market, which you advocated for in your first comment.

            3. You said, we don’t subsidize the alternatives because consumers don’t care. I agree that we don’t subsidize the alternatives (if fact we subsidize animal agriculture heavily), but I disagree on the reason. I believe the reason is that animal agriculture culture has extremely powerful and effective lobby groups in Washington.

            4. You said, I think simple advertisements would be sufficient. I used that as an example. No, I don’t think that one thing would be sufficient; it just ticks me off that the milk industry, a for profit business, is advertising a toxic product all over my kids’ public school. There are many other examples of the government promoting animal agriculture.

            5. You said, look at cigarettes; there are still millions of smokers. I did. According to Gallup and other pollsters, cigarette smoking in the US is at it’s lowest point ever. It has been cut in half since the 70’s. I don’t think information will cause everyone to make wise choices, but it helps. A lot.

            As I said in my previous comments, with the combination of better information and non-subsidized prices, people (at least some) will change their behaviors. I also said, I doubt they’ll go vegan, but they will make better choices.

            I think we both agree that people are lazy. They would much rather blame car companies or power companies than change their behavior. The problem with the approach of making our current bad choices have less impact is that it doesn’t work. More efficient cars, renewable energy, shorter showers, and everything else that you hear about in the 24 hour news cycle only scratches the surface. The impact of animal agriculture dwarfs all of those.

            P.S. Soy burgers suck. Try black bean burgers.

          • Gregory Weaver

            Well you think better of people than I you think they are Ignorant and I think they are souless. Either way I was already aware that the bigest contributor to ghg emissions wall the animal husbandry industry. As it is also the single largest consumer of water not just in California but also the world. Alas people wont change until a catastrophe just as the state of California ignored their water industry until a problem so to will people ignor the environment in general.

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