Have you heard the recent debate over almonds? They’re a California crop that requires 10% of the state’s water, and this during a drought. Defendants of the popular nut point to alfalfa (used to feed beef) as the more egregious offender, alfalfa requiring 15% or more of the state’s water. However, this debate is missing the key component: sustainability. It is not whether almonds or alfalfa is worse. (They are both offenders.) Our whole system needs an overhaul.
Molly Spence, Director of the North American Almond Board of California encourages consumers to see their website and see the progress farmers are making in terms of their water use. A video on the website shows how almond farms have reduced the amount of water required to grow an almond by 33%. She contends,
All food production needs water. California farmers provide half of all the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts, along with many dairy products and more than 400 other crops that feed consumers from coast to coast and around the world. We agree that food production should be as water-efficient as possible to address the global challenge of feeding the world — but people also need a reliable, nutritious food supply. Using water efficiently to grow food is a valid use of this important, valuable resource. (source)
You've heard the dire warnings. California has less than a year's worth of water left. But have you heard this? http://t.co/RRreHqHFC2
— FoodRenegade (@FoodRenegade) June 12, 2015
A recent article from NPR points out that almonds have been targeted with greater criticism because in the last 10 years so many farmers have removed their former crops, ones that could be fallowed or rotated, for the high-cash crop of almonds, one that requires relatively large amounts of water and a semi-permanent tax on the water supply. Additionally, this crop is largely for export, with California growing 2/3 of the world’s almonds, roughly 25% of the state’s agricultural export revenue! (source)
Alfalfa’s story is also one of export. Over a million Californian acres are consecrated to this crop and, therefore, to the world’s love of factory-grown beef. If we’re discussing allocation of resources, one critic calls this an outsourcing of drought. (source) While California may produce up to 80% of the world’s almonds, the tremendous mass of land dedicated to alfalfa only produces 2% of the world’s beef. This contrast certainly vilifies alfalfa and seems to vindicate almonds. With a greater financial gain for the state than the percentage of water used shouldn’t we give almonds a break?
A recent article in the New York Times points out,
In California, 80 percent of water used by humans goes to farming and ranching. To this indictment, we can add irrational subsidies and water engineering projects that have led to irrigation in areas where it doesn’t make sense. Today, California, despite the drought, is effectively exporting water (in the form of milk, beef, walnuts and produce). (source)
Even more poignantly, the author hits on the real issue:
… the central challenge can’t be solved by a good rain because the larger problem is an irrational industrial food system.
Joel Salatin, the Robin Hood of cows, shares these issues with insight. After making a name for himself as a grass-farmer, a man who actually raises cattle but understands that that means rotating them daily to fresh varied pastures, Salatin has taken his principles and shown how far-reaching their truths extend.
The fact is that even in America, most communities don’t feed themselves…as rich as we are right here, only 5% of the food that we eat here is grown here. So we ship it 1,000 miles away, re-import in a box, in a bag, in something, when we could be raising it all and feeding ourselves completely.
Take California as an example, California doesn’t nearly begin to feed itself. But it’s because California is trying to feed the East Coast and the northern tier with strawberries and mesclun mix in January.
…if we took all the diesel fuel that’s trucking this food across the country and put it in season-extending hoop houses, so that the east and the northern tier can grow strawberries and mesclun mix in the winter time, to feed themselves then California could feed itself, too. (source)
So is this debate misfocused? I think so.
While both almonds and alfalfa drain a desert state of water it doesn’t have (to feed mouths in other states and countries), Joel Salatin is proposing, like many other sustainably-minded farm revolutionaries, that we overhaul the system and grow our food locally.
(Instead of farmers trying to gain access to what little water there is, they need to rethink what they’re growing and how they’re growing it.)
Subsidy-loving governments looking at billion dollar export markets will never see the rationale in feeding ourselves this way. But just as Robin Hood escaped into the forest subversively, formed a band of sympathizers and gave back to the people what was rightfully theirs, we need to give back to the land what has been taken.
As consumers we can band together:
- No CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) meat purchases (even when dining out!) means a greater demand for local, organic, grass-fed meat. Everyday we see major corporations make changes, (their sourcing of meat, their rejection of genetically modified food), all due to consumer awareness and demand. Alfalfa mono-crops will not help to feed Californians locally, nor will they heal or enrich that soil and reverse desertification. Buying local beef from your grass farmer will.
- Reduce your almond consumption. Yes, this, too, will help. Production of California almonds has more than doubled since 2005. (source) Demand for almond milk, almond butter and almond flour adds to this market. Nutritionally, almonds should be eaten in greater moderation anyway! California farmers have chosen to grow a crop that is not native to that region, one that does not support or give back to the ecosystem.
- Buy meat and produce from local farmers who raise their crops with sustainable methods. We create the world of agriculture we desire with the grocery dollars we spend.
To bless the land we must listen to it; we must remember where it came from, what is natural to it, working with the land’s rhythms.
At the end of the day, what is good for our bodies, nutritionally, is good for the earth. What the land can support with sustainable farming practices will bless our bodies. When we push nature beyond its own guidance, our diet and health reflect the imbalance.
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(Photo Credits- “Watering alfalfa field” by Kelapstick – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Watering_alfalfa_field.JPG#/media/File:Watering_alfalfa_field.JPG and californiaagriculture.ucanr.edu)