skip to Main Content

Food by the Gallon

You drink eight glasses of water a day. But you consume far more through the food you eat. A special report.

By JESSICA CAREW KRAFT

Issues: Spring 2015

Authors: Jessica Carew Kraft

Topics: ,

Locations: ,

Materials:

You drink eight glasses of water a day. But you consume far more through the food you eat.

Some consumer items use a lot of water (jeans are among the most demanding), but the bulk of our water goes into food.

With the return of intense drought in California, attention has focused on the “virtual water” that the state exports—just in the food it grows for others.

Overall, however, considering all the people who live in California, the state ends up being a net importer of the water it eats. The big exporter is the American midwest.

The US as a whole then exports our water so the rest of the world can eat it.

A lot of that “virtual water” goes to places without water shortages, such as the dark blue areas on this seasonal map of rain and snow patterns.

Shouldn’t almonds be grown somewhere besides California? Photo by California Almond Board.

So why don’t we just grow food where the water is plentiful, and stop growing it where it’s dry? Take those villainous almonds, for example, which consume a gallon of water per nut. Analysts at Rabobank estimate that 80 percent of the world’s almonds—and 99 percent of those in the U.S.—are grown in California, where crippling droughts are becoming the norm.

Unfortunately, almonds only grow well in dry climates, and they have flourished in California thanks to the state’s sophisticated (and heavily subsidized) system of irrigation. More important, the water almonds consume is nothing compared to the gallons you’re eating in many other foods.

In some dry areas of the world, farmers are turning to less thirsty crops.

There are lots of nutritious alternatives to the thirstiest foods. And many ways for cooks to make them tasty and appealing. Now we just have to wait for people to start cooking them.

A note on sources and further reading

Use this icon to share, download, or print a Google Slides version of this article.

Figures for the overall “water footprint” of an American, as well as those about global “virtual” water flows, are from the Water Footprint Network (the graphic was published by The Nature Conservancy).  The University of California’s Agricultural Issues Center tracks the state’s agricultural exports. The map showing global rainfall is by PZmaps, used under a Wikimedia Commons license. The US’s domestic “virtual” water trade has been calculated by researchers at Colorado State University. California’s almond market share is estimated by Rabobank. Figures about the water impact of specific crops and foods are drawn from research by M. M. Mekonnen and A.Y. Hoekstra at the Unviersity of Twente in The Netherlands. Regarding beef, note that pastured, or “grass-fed” beef, uses a smaller portion of the water we collect than industrially-raised cattle do. This is because feedlots depend on corn, soy and other commercial feeds that require a lot of water.

Much has been written about this subject — and the gallon-of-water-almond in particular — as California has faced the reality of yet another year of drought. Tom Philpott in Mother Jones examines arguments for shifting more agricultural production from California to more reliably wet parts of the U.S. Nathanel Johnson explores the scapegoating of almonds for Grist and points to state water policies as a better focus of attention. In another story he gives a wide-ranging forecast of what climate change means for farmers and urban residents, too; even with steady rain, a warmer winter portends changes for almonds and other crops. State and federal water policies also get a thorough critique from Daniel P. Beard on Bloomberg View.  Meanwhile, analysts at Rabobank are skeptical much will change, at least in terms of almonds. The world’s appetite for the nuts continues to grow, prices are rising, and, it appears, there’s really no place else other than California that can satisfy demand.

Back To Top