Water, Water Everywhere, or Not

In California, where most of the food eaten in this country is grown, the painful drought is being addressed in a number of ways. One is that waste treatment water is being turned into drinking water.

As noted in the Mother Jones article “It Takes How Much Water to Grow an Almond?!”, according to 2010 figures, the average daily water use, not including for farming, of one person living in Palm Springs is more than 700 gallons a day.

I’m guessing that while the repurposed toilet water is not going to families in Palm Springs, others drink what they flush–water from which the pesticides, carcinogens and crap have been filtered out.

To be fair, cities with the lowest usage, like San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara, offset the Palm Springs numbers, and hopefully people across the state are not flushing as often. Remember, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” While this idea may be abhorrent to some people, a family could save thousands of gallons a year by following this dictum.

Trees are toppling over because their roots cannot hold on to dust, and California livestock operations are selling out and shutting down because there is no grass and the cost of buying hay is prohibitive. Yet, alfalfa grown in California is being pressed and plastic wrapped, then shipped to the Middle East and Asia. It’s a profitable business, but at what cost?

“A hundred billion gallons of water per year is being exported in the form of alfalfa from California,” Arizona College of Law Professor Robert Glennon notes in “California drought: Why farmers are ‘exporting water’ to China” in the “BBC News Magazine.”

The U.S. imports more than twice the quantity of fruits and vegetables than it exports. This has historically been due in part to the fact that farm subsidies seldom reached fruit and vegetable growers, with the benefit largely going to producers of grains, cotton, oil seeds and dairy.

Produce growers go where the money is. While recent improvements in support of more diverse agriculture have been legislated, they are a fraction of what needs to be done to support our farmers and secure our food supply.

The Mother Jones article also notes the water cost of growing individual foods. I was stunned to learn that growing a single walnut requires 4.9 gallons of water. According to Euromonitor International’s “Outlook for US Dried Fruit & Tree Nuts: Consumption & Export Trends,” nearly $5 billion worth of tree nuts were exported from the United States in 2011.

According to Renée Johnson, author of “The U.S. Trade Situation for Fruit and Vegetable Products,” a report published by the Federation of American Scientists, ”A number of factors shaping current competitive market conditions worldwide, and global trade in fruits and vegetables in particular, partially explain the rising fruit and vegetable trade deficit.” Johnson cites these factors:

  • a relatively open domestic import regime and lower average import tariffs in the United States, with products from most leading suppliers entering the U.S. duty free or at preferential duty rates;
  • increased competition from low-cost or government-subsidized production;
  • continued non-tariff trade barriers to U.S. exports in some countries, such as import and inspection requirements, technical product standards, and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) requirements;
  • opportunities for counter-seasonal supplies, driven in part by increased domestic and year-round demand for fruits and vegetables; and
  • other market factors, such as exchange rate fluctuations and structural changes in the U.S. food industry, as well as increased U.S. overseas investment and diversification in market sourcing by U.S. companies.

More than three gallons of water is required to grow either a head of lettuce or one tomato.

Consider the big picture. Income distribution in this country has become lopsided, and while the incomes of workers globally has risen, those in the United States are stagnant. Many families can’t afford to buy healthy nuts and other foods that command high prices overseas. If it’s cheaper to load vegetables onto a container ship and send them across the Pacific Ocean than it is to truck them to the East Coast, does that mean we should?

Should government subsidies be top-heavy for behemoth companies that grow grains that are turned into energy, but not support farmers who are growing for the American table? Why aren’t American food growers rewarded and encouraged to keep our food, and our water, here at home.

As our trade deficit grows and more and more of our water is exported through the foods and feed we sell to other countries, it will become necessary for farmers in drought-stricken regions to buy their water from more water-rich areas, and even across borders. This is not fair to them or the consumer when conservation and a revision of trade practices might even the playing field, assure a decent income for our farmers and lock down food security for the rest of us.

Sheila Velazquez lives and writes in western Massachusetts. She can be reached at: sheilavelazquez@comcast.net.. Read other articles by Sheila, or visit Sheila's website.