An Eco-conundrum: Eating local in a drought

BlogHer Original Post

Eat local's the usual eco-foodie mantra, but that advice takes on a bittersweet edge when your state's in a drought. Sure, we can conserve at home -- but 80% of California's water goes to agriculture.
ricefields by you.
And that water's running out -- fast -- because we've been using way more water that our ecosystems will allow. In fact, the Pacific coast's salmon fishery's collapsing because we've pumped too much water -- which is why water deliveries to both farmers and urbanites have to be cut by about 5% to 7% annually now, according to the L.A. Times.

Those cuts mean major problems for California's farmers -- and the farmers are very angry, NPR reports. While drought's really the cause of, you know, the drought, many California farmers in the Westlands apparently blame the drought-related water rationing on the government's decision to "save the fish" in lieu of people's livelihoods.

Of course, if we don't save the fish, the livelihoods of people who depend on the fish will be hurt. In fact, 2009's already the second year Cali's state's salmon fleet's been banned from fishing off the coast in an effort to revive the fish population.

To many an environmentalist, the problem's not so much today's water rationing, but the choice to irrigate Cali's water-poor land in the first place. And now that we're running out of water -- with global climate change predicted to shrink our water supplies even further -- many are starting to ask if we should really continue growing water-intensive crops. CBS 5 recently reported on these changing attitudes:

There are over 500,000 acres of rice fields in California, with some people saying that's just too much water. Most of the crop will head not to America, but overseas to satisfy Asia's mighty appetite.

Sure, selling rice and other produce means money for California -- several billion dollars to the state economy, by NPR's count. According to the Water Education Foundation, "One out of every six jobs in California is tied to agriculture in some way, and many counties rely on agriculture as their primary economic activity." And Cali, with the biggest ag economy in the nation, sure grows a whole lot of produce -- the vast majority of U.S.'s produce, as Tom Philpott points out in Grist. As NPR describes it, "with a long summer of uninterrupted sunlight ... where the soil is good, it's almost like agriculture on steroids."

However, Tom also points out that Cali's very water poor. When it comes down to it, California's engaging in a dangerous virtual water trade -- exporting to other states and countries the water we desperately need here. For example, California wheat growers produce "an average of 1.1 million tons of winter wheat and 250000 tons of Desert Durum wheat" -- 300,000 metric tons of which is exported annually, according to the California Wheat Commission -- and I believe most of this wheat goes to feeding livestock. A pound of wheat requires 500 liters -- or 132 gallons -- of water. Check out Designer Timm Kekeritz' virtual water illustrations (sample below) to find out how much water goes into producing conventional food items.
virtualwater by you.
This kind of unsustainable trade tends to be associated with "third world" countries exporting to Europe and the U.S. For example, water activists have drawn attention to the fact that Kenya's flower industry's poisoning and depleting Lake Naivasha -- probably permanently -- simply to deliver fresh flowers to European countries unwilling to compromise their own water supplies and natural resources for the same purpose. But clearly, developing countries aren't the only ones trading short-term financial gains for long term ecological collapse. We've been happily doing that right here in California for decades.

How can we stop this unsustainable practice? I don't think the solution's no longer buying local -- though I am beginning to rethink my Cali rice purchases. Partial solutions include growing some of your own food -- using captured rainwater or graywater, of course -- and getting to better know your local farmers so you can support the ones with better water-conservation policies.

New solutions too are in the pipeline. The L.A. Times reports that in Camarillo, there's a new eco-friendly super-greenhouse:

Workers have dug a four-acre pond to store rainwater and runoff. This water, along with condensation, is collected, filtered and recirculated back to each of the 20-acre greenhouses. That has cut water use to less than one-fifth of that required in conventional field cultivation.

The facility generates its own renewable power. It hoards rainwater... The plants, which are fed individually through tubing that looks like intravenous hospital equipment, produce 20 times more fruit per acre than in conventional field production.

Other ideas abound. Tom suggests, for example, a wholesale-level tax on water-poor counties, with half the money going back to farmers to transition to less water-intensive systems, the other half to rebuild local production across nation. A scarier proposition is desalination -- a troubling "solution" I'll cover in the next post.

For now, I'm interested in hearing what your thoughts are on our nation's water issues. Have you changed your buying or eating habits because of them? Do you have a proposed solution to this issue you support? Can you point the rest of us to info and resources so we can educate ourselves further on this issue? Please share your watery knowledge -- and questions -- in the comments.

Related links on food and water conservation:

>> Jenn at Tiny Choices shows you how to make a DIY self-watering plant contraption.

>> Jen DeRose at Re-Nest shows you an easy way to collect rain water for your garden.

>> Tracy Stokes at EcoStreet shows you how one woman recycled old gutters into a vertical garden.

>> GOOD illustrates where America's largest cities get their water, and what the water footprint of your daily choices are.

Top photo of a rice field in Sutter County, Calif. by calwest; bottom image via traumkrieger.de
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BlogHer Contributing Editor Siel also blogs at greenLAgirl.com.

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