Take the 101 South out of San Francisco through Silicon Valley, past the campuses of Apple, Google, and Facebook. You’ll drive past Whole Foods Markets, Trader Joe’s, Costcos, Walmarts, medical centers, golf courses, fruit stands, and farmers markets. Continue south, hang a left at Gilroy, and hit CA-152 West. As you pass the San Luis Reservoir and Recreation Area, you’ll see signs warning prospective swimmers and boaters to avoid the water due to toxic algal blooms.
The 152 rolls into Highway 99 as you continue through Fresno and finally reach your destination, the small town of Dinuba, California. You’ll find yourself at the base of Smith Mountain, smack dab in the center of the San Joaquin Valley.
Around 66 million years ago, the Pacific Ocean was having trouble deciding how big it wanted to be. Over the next 60 million years, the San Joaquin Valley was repeatedly flooded with ocean water as the sea level rose and fell. Then, thanks to some tectonic friskiness, the coastal ranges were lifted to the point where the ocean could no longer breach them on a regular basis. Two million years ago, the glaciers flowed through, converting the sediment-rich valley into a giant freshwater lake.
To the naked eye, that lake is gone — but if you had X-ray vision, you’d see that it’s just moved underground, creating a giant freshwater aquifer. The fertile soil, watered by the remaining lakes, rivers, streams, and springs were more than enough to support several indigenous peoples, including the Yokuts and Miwok, who hunted, foraged acorns, berries, and pine nuts, and even cultivated tobacco.
Over the past 50 years, the San Joaquin Valley has become the most important agricultural land in the US, producing the majority of the crops grown in California, which itself provides almost 13% of the nation’s total.
Today, you’re here to meet Rebecca and Tory Torosian, who own and run Tory Farm in the San Joaquin Valley, a small citrus and stone fruit farm that’s been providing healthy and delicious produce to their community for over five decades. The pride and joy of their operation is the five acres of orange, mandarin, and grapefruit, especially their prized oro blanco (“white gold”) variety.
I mean, those orchards were their pride and joy.
Faced with a worsening statewide drought, their irrigation district cut off their water supply, which they had received via a canal from the nearby Kings River. At first, they thought they might be able to save their citrus groves by watering them from the wells on their property. But small farms can’t afford to dig deep wells. And the Torosians found that they could draw only a fraction of the water needed to keep the trees alive. Not only that, the extra energy required to operate the struggling pumps increased their electricity bill by 30%.
As a result, they’ve had to make the tough decision to abandon the citrus orchards in order to save their apricot, peach, plum, and pluot groves. Whether they or the other 70,000 small farms that make up the beating heart of California’s agricultural economy will survive is now in serious doubt.
Meanwhile, what happened to all that water? Sure, there’s been a historic drought, which hasn’t helped matters. But that’s what groundwater is for, to keep the people and farms alive until the rains return.
Unfortunately, the lion’s share of the groundwater isn’t going to the farms that provide us with healthy and delicious plant foods. While the Torosians steward their dwindling water supply drop by drop – and lawmakers urge California residents to replace their lawns with cacti and stones, install low-flow shower heads, and only flush their toilets when truly needed – other agricultural sectors in the region are awash in freshwater. And those sectors have one thing in common: they all go “moo.”
The problem is global. Water covers 70% of our planet. But despite the fact that we live on “the water planet,” the reality is that fresh water — the stuff we bathe in, drink, and irrigate our farms with — is remarkably scarce. It makes up only about 3% of the world’s total water supply. (And I’m not just worried because my name is Ocean. My son River shares my concern, too.)
Every day on this planet, there are more people. But the global supply of freshwater is in decline. In fact, the available freshwater resources per person have declined by more than 20% over just the past two decades.
The largest consumer of water worldwide is agriculture. But certain foods and dietary patterns have a much larger water footprint than others. If the rest of the world ate like Americans — consuming large quantities of meat, eggs, and dairy products — the planet would have run out of freshwater 15 years ago. Even executives from Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, privately told US officials that the world is on a collision course with doom because non-Americans are now also eating too much meat. (It took Wikileaks to reveal this information, which was documented in a secret US government report.)
Why is agriculture putting such a drain on our water? How do different foods measure up when it comes to water usage? And how can you make an impact by choosing what you put on your plate? Let’s take a closer look.
Currently, agriculture accounts for 70% of global freshwater consumption. Some of this is direct use — like watering crops and providing drinking water for animals. And some is indirect – like the water used in the production of feed, fertilizers, and pesticides.
The problem isn’t that we’re using water, but that we’re overusing it. The world’s supply of usable water is finite (and it doesn’t look like we’ll be mining outer space for H2O anytime soon).
But industrial civilization, in general — and industrial-scale agriculture, in particular — has ignored this constraint, choosing instead to draw down Earth’s water inheritance: groundwater.
Groundwater is what it sounds like: water that’s under the ground, rather than the stuff that falls from the sky, or exists above ground in rivers, lakes, streams, glaciers, and so on. Immense underground aquifers store water that has been purified through long and winding journeys from the sky through the soil. It’s precious stuff.
Unfortunately, increased demands placed on our groundwater resources have overstressed aquifers in many areas of the world. More than three billion people live in areas with significant water shortages. And agriculture is the leading cause of groundwater overuse or depletion, which is what happens when water levels decline because of sustained groundwater pumping.
In addition to reducing the amount of life-giving water available, the effects of groundwater depletion include:
Where is this happening? Almost everywhere. Increased demands on groundwater resources have overstressed aquifers in many areas of the world, but arid nations are particularly vulnerable because of drought.
When drought hits, agriculture is the first and most intensely affected sector. Severe drought can lead to widespread famine as well as migration of people due to its dire conditions and consequences. It can also worsen social tensions and civil unrest that are already on the rise in certain areas. (If you want to get a sense of the suffering that can come from drought, read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or watch a documentary on the Dust Bowl that blanketed the American Southwest during the 1930s.)
With nearly 40% of the world relying on agriculture as a primary source of income, drought threatens the livelihood of many families. It can be so severe that it reverses advancements made in reducing poverty and improving food security.
How are farmers supposed to respond during drought? Often, they drill wells deeper into the earth to tap into already dwindling groundwater, in an attempt to save high-value, water-intensive crops and livestock. But this solution, too, is short-lived. What happens when the even deeper wells run dry? We can’t keep kicking the can down the road forever.
Pesticides and fertilizers used in agriculture can contaminate both groundwater and surface water, as can livestock wastes, antibiotics, and processing wastes from plantation crops. For instance, manure used as fertilizer is often overapplied to fields, causing it to run off the fields and into rivers and streams.
Nitrates from agriculture are now the most common chemical contaminant in the world’s groundwater stores. Drinking water contaminated with nitrates can cause a number of health problems. It’s linked to an increased risk of blue baby syndrome, which can cause deaths in infants, as well as spontaneous abortions, and disease outbreaks traced to bacteria and viruses in waste.
Animal waste runoff from factory farms also contributes to groundwater pollution. Pathogens, like E.coli and Salmonella, are abundant in animal waste. These can run downhill during a rainstorm or seep into underground aquifers — getting into nearby water systems that spread the pathogens elsewhere.
And over the last 20 years, a new class of agricultural pollutants has emerged in the form of veterinary medicines — like antibiotics, vaccines, and growth promoters — which move from farms through the water to ecosystems and drinking water sources.
When it comes to agriculture, do you know what the biggest water depleter is? It’s animal agriculture. And if there were an olympic event for the world’s biggest agricultural water waster, there’s little doubt that beef would win the gold.
In fact, it generally takes over 20 times more water to produce a pound of beef compared to rice, grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables.
In the United States, it takes almost 1,800 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef.
To put that in context, let’s compare that to something most of us do every day (or almost every day): showering. The average American showers for about 7.8 minutes per day, with a flow rate of 2.1 gallons per minute (lower if they have a low-flow showerhead) — thus using about 16 gallons of water showering each day. So the bottom line here is that you would save more water by not eating a pound of beef than you would by not showering for nearly four months.
This satirical video makes the point (and might make you laugh, too!):
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