Why California Matters to Your Food Supply
California is currently experiencing the worst drought on record, and that is going to impact your food costs and supply, no matter where you live. California is the number one supplier of agricultural product to the United States and produces nearly half of the US grown fruits, nuts and vegetables. If you had tomatoes today, they probably came from California. The average meal in the United States travels 1,600 miles from farm to fork. When you live in New England and your tomatoes are coming from across the country, that’s 3,000 miles traveled for one food item alone. Some of this produce will be impacted, such as tree and vine crops along with dairy, while other products are on a different water system and in different locations and won’t be impacted in the short term.
Consider also how that food is being produced. Cows and other livestock that are grass fed only aren’t getting the grass they need and farmers are having to purchase hay and feed for them on top of their normal expenses. Farmers consume nearly 80% of the water in the state. In the wild, low water levels are preventing salmon from being able to spawn and keeping young salmon from reaching the sea. This will ultimately result in a decline in the Salmon population and a loss of food source not only for humans, but for wildlife too.
Some communities have put limits on water being served to customers at restaurant unless it is specifically asked for and even then there is hesitation on your refill. Though the amount of water wasted by not being consumed by patrons is minimal, it adds up over time. However, the dishwashing water and operational water is far more extensive. This argument and approach becomes a little bit about human behavior and conservation efforts both out at restaurants and in public and also at home. The 14 average inches of rainfall a year is enough to support local plant life, which has adapted to that environment. But lawn care and maintenance through the city and public water supply needs to have some oversight, if not be eliminated completely. Greywater systems and drip irrigation systems should be used to irrigate lawns rather than potable water.
Without relief from the current drought, food supply and the US economy will suffer, and it’s practically inevitable at this point anyway. Where is their usual rain fall and water supply? As far as I can tell it’s come down in my front yard and across the Northeast, Atlantic Coast, and Southern states all winter. The irony is that if the Midwestern states got too much snow and have a lot of runoff this spring, other parts of the country will experience flooding while California would still need one and a half times its annual precipitation just to recover from the current drought situation.
Currently 500,000 acres of farmland have not been planted this year and that number could double if the drought extends into 2015, leaving many farmers and workers unemployed. Storms are expected to bring some rain to the region this week, but it won’t be enough and could even potentially cause more harm than good. Precipitation at a higher than usual rate into very dry conditions is likely to cause flooding if the ground can’t absorb the rainfall at the same rate it falls at.
Communities are looking into opening the operation of desalination plants which would convert salt water into drinking water. Though viable, this solution is expensive due to the energy demands the process requires but the dire situation may leave few other choices.
The drought is all the more reason to develop local food supplies and maintain a diet based on growing seasons rather than what can be produced year round in mass at a cost to the local ecosystem across the country. There are many tools available to help determined what produce fits different climates and regions (though these statistics may understandably change over time with climate change). I’m just as guilty as the next person for loving tomatoes, and cherry tomatoes are one product that can grow easily indoors. Apples are capable of growing in many regions. If not a local growing season based diet than at least frequent your local farm or sign up for a CSA and look into where the products come from. Local food movements have been growing in popularity but often fizzle out, which is not characteristic of resilient systems. As I mentioned, the current meal travels about 1,600 miles farm to fork, but a local system, whether through a CSA or local farm, urban gardening, or personal victory gardens can reduce that number for 1,600 miles to as little as 160 feet, or maybe even fewer!
Still, even in devastation, there is opportunity, as is part of the adaptive cycle in resilient systems. Southern California learned from the drought in the late 1980’s-early 1990’s and is well prepared for the current drought, but still has conservation efforts underway as their supply is estimated to only last another year. As California enters the reorganization phase, the opportunity for innovation occurs that will allow them to better address this problem for the next time. This time around the major communities are prepared while the smaller ones are seeking innovative ideas. During the next time around the state may just have an overall better approach for long term water conservation. This cycle is perfectly normal, but it shows the rest of the country not to rely long term on one source of products, but rather diversify food sources. Ultimately the drought will help make your food supply more resilient.
In the meantime, Californians should focus on their own personal water conservation efforts. Thinking locally will help impact the regional supply. Importing water to the state will be expensive. Desalination will be expensive. Added expenses won’t help the long term economic picture for a state already plagued with debt issues, and neither will losing portions of the state’s exports to drought and poor farming conditions. Communities are starting to put daily limits on household water usage. Many of these communities are predicted to have 100 days or less of a reliable water supply, and many predictions don’t have that number changing any time soon. The current rainfall will be a temporary fix, but the drought is predicted to last for quite sometime and there appears to be no current cost effective long term fix.
For more information you can listen to WBUR’s On Point Conversation of the California Drought and the U.S. Food Supply
The USDA is launching an effort to assist California Producers affected by the drought. For more information, go to the USDA Website.