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California Drought Won't Keep Us From Showering, Make Us Eat Insects

California Drought Won't Keep Us From Showering, Make Us Eat Insects

In the News

April 16, 2015

Originally published in Forbes. 

California’s drought won’t force a major lifestyle change on us, but it does signal a change in the ways and places we grow our foods. 

Whether you believe in climate change or not, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 40 percent of California is in the “exceptional drought” category – which is up 23 percent from a year ago making this drought the most severe in approximately 1,200 years according to the report "How Unusual is the 2012-2014 California Drought," published by Daniel Griffin and Kevin J. Anchukaitis in the December 2014 edition of the American Geophysical Union journal.

The reason California’s drought is so important to every person and every touch point along the agriculture supply chain, is that this region of the country boasts the most diverse crops (over 400) and supplies nearly half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables to the rest of the country, according to the California Department of Food & Agriculture. Some crops, including almonds, walnuts, and pistachios are produced solely in California; and the state represents almost 90 percent or more of the production of grapes, broccoli, lemons, celery, cauliflower, prunes and plums.

The headlines seem to be focused on Governor Jerry Brown’s edict for mandatory water use restrictions for the state's citizens while exempting farmers, or how people need to stop taking showers, put bricks in their toilet tanks, stop watering their lawns and washing their cars, stop wasting food and switch their protein source from burgers to insects (more on that later!).

What is not being talked about is that California, especially in the areas that most of these crops are grown, is naturally a dry, and in parts a desert region – and through man-made irrigation was turned into one of our nation’s most important food growing regions. Today, and hopefully in the future, California is the leading agriculture state in the United States.

Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House Majority Leader and a grandson of a cattle rancher who lives in the hard hit Central Valley of California, on April 2nd posted on his Twitter feed that “we cannot conserve or ration our way out of this drought” as he attempts to pass legislation that would change the way water is captured and stored in the future. Politics aside, he is correct to state that we need to make changes in the ways we use water to grow our foods in the future.

According to the National Drought Summary for April 7, 2015, “This week saw warmer than normal temperatures impacting roughly two-thirds of the nation… most of the rest of the country experienced continued dryness.”

In March, the U.S. contiguous states average temperature was 45.4°F, which is 3.9°F above the 20th century average and the 12th warmest March on record and warmest since 2012. The summary continues by reporting that 15 states across the Southeast, Northern Plains and West had a March temperature that was much above average with California, Oregon and Washington having their second warmest March on record.

The scariest fact for agriculture? According to the March 31st U.S. Drought Monitor report, 36.8 percent of the contiguous U.S. was in drought, up from 31.9 percent at the beginning of March. Take a look at the World Research Institute’s Water Risk Map to get a visual impact of just how bad the situation is!

Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton, said it very well in a recent interview with the New York Times, “The drought is made of two components: not enough rain and too much heat.”

Almost 98% of the Earth’s water supply is salt water. One much discussed solution is to build along California’s 840 mile coastline desalination plants of which there are 12,500 in other parts of the world (with 60% of them in the Middle East as reported by the Texas Water Development Board).

The $1 billion desalination plant in Carlsbad California, the largest built in the Western Hemisphere, will begin operating later this year to supply San Diego County with 50 million gallons of high quality drinking water each day according to Poseidon Water, the owner of the plant. The Association of California Water Agencies in 2012 began preparation to build 17 desalination plants in the state. Of note, is that even when fully operating, these plants will only supply five to seven percent of average urban water demand in California, according to the Pacific Institute; and environmentalists continue to voice concerns on the impact of these facilities on sea life.

Where we get our water, its quality, and whether water is abundant or in short supply matters quite a bit. There are three types of water: blue, green and grey.

Blue water is fresh surface and groundwater that is found in lakes, streams, reservoirs and aquifers; the water that we drink, bathe in, use for domestic activities and in agriculture from everything from feeding animals to irrigation as well as food production. According to the United Nations World Water Assessment Programme blue water accounts for one-third of freshwater resources and agriculture uses 70 percent of this resource globally.

Green water is rainwater that is stored in the soil and evaporates or transpires through plants. Green water, according to The Crop Site, can be made productive when treated to a quality suitable for provision as a non-potable supply for industrial, residential or public use such as toilet flushing, horticultural/irrigation purposes, laundries, industrial processes or washing, heating/cooling functions.

Grey water is water that was previously used and contains impurities, such as water from our washing machines or dishwashers or waste water and needs to be treated.

It’s the use of water for our livestock herds and production that have reignited the debate about the sustainability of animal protein. The singer-songwriter Moby, in his column posted on Huffington Post shared that it take 4,000 to 18,000 gallons of water to produce a 1/3 lb. of hamburger. (You can calculate how much water it takes to produce a variety of foods on the USGS Water School online calculator). Which in turn has sparked many columns about growing and eating insects, as many parts of the world do, instead of consuming animal protein. In a recap of the trend projections for 2015, many food pundits named insect protein as one of the hot trends for the year. I, for one, doubt that will become mainstream. Writing about eating bugs is great to attract social media interest and followers; but to eat them is another thing altogether. And then there is the science.

In the January 2011 issue of The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, a paper entitled “Water Footprint of Livestock: Comparison of Six Geographically Defined Beef Production Systems” came to the conclusion that “the general assumption that meat production is a driver of water scarcity is not supported” and that in Australia, where the research was done, the water footprint for beef cattle production was similar to that of major cereal products cultivated in the same region. (For the record, I am neither a vegan nor an avid carnivore and was a panelist on Oprah’s infamous Mad Cow episode where I urged the beef industry to tell the truth about Mad Cow Disease and let people decide for themselves to eat beef or not).

One of the most intelligent solutions that I have heard is to maximize our food production and water use in agriculture by shifting what crops are grown where, in essence, grow crops in the bio-regions of the country that offer the best suited soil, water and climate for a particular crop. Alfalfa as example has been called out as one of the most water thirsty crops. In a November 2011 report entitled California Agriculture Role in the Economy and Water Use  published by the Center for Irrigation Technology the report forecasted what the outcome would be to reallocate resources – a five percent shift in acreage from alfalfa, to a low water-use crop of fresh tomatoes. The result was a savings of 131,810 acre-feet of water. No surprise, the decrease in acreage created a drop in the value of the alfalfa crop of $37.9 million; but the fresh tomato crop increased by $494.5 million.

On March 26 the Washington Post convened a day-long symposium Changing the Menu as part of it’s America Answers series to jump start the dialogue about the foods we eat, how they are produced and who makes them. I was honored to participate in the panel discussion and webcast moderated by Tamar Haspel of the Washington Post, along with NYU’s Marion Nestle, Ph.D and Ricardo Salvador, Ph.D of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Our focus was centered on “the forces that shape our food supply.”

What seems to be rapidly changing is the way we are communicating and empowering others about food, nutrition and agriculture. Steve Case the co-founder of AOL and Chairman of Revolution Foods, presented his insights on why he’s investing his fortune in the food business. He said the $1 trillion food business is “ripe for disruption” and one of America’s most promising growth industries. In a follow up interview in The Washington Post, he added “There are opportunities to improve the way things are done at every level: How food is produced, exported, processed, consumed. Our focus… is on investing in people and ideas that can change the world, and it’s harder to imagine anything that changes the world as much as food.”

Hopefully we can start the change with water, before it is too late.