Can We End California's Drought Just By Eating Differently?

Can We End California's Drought Just By Eating Differently?

Grist journalist Nathanael Johnson criticizes the media trend to document how much water certain crops take to produce, suggesting consumers boycott foods with a heavy water footprint. Johnson explains that put into context, many "water guzzling" crops actually make sense. Alfalfa, for instance, "is a great choice for farmers worried that they might not get their water, because if you stop irrigating, it simply goes dormant — then it springs back to life when the rains return."

Johnson also highlights the importance of location on water footprint. Beef, for instance, can have a drastically different water footprint depending on how and where it is reared. Cattle fed on grain, for instance, has a high water footprint, but most of that grain is coming from the Midwest. Much pasture-raised beef, on the other hand, might be an important part of an ecosystem, that lacking cows, "there may not much to do with the land except build houses."

Johnson urges: "Instead of asking eaters to wade through this complexity every time they pick up a fork, we need policies that make water expensive for farmers in places where it’s scarce. A market price for water would simply eliminate inefficient crops." And while California does have a water market, it has "one massive market failure: It’s still legal for landowners to pump as much water out of their ground as they can in many places."

Market oriented policies might not be very sexy, but they are effectual. "Instead of haphazardly picking foods to boycott or stockading the almond-eaters, let’s let farmers read the market signals and grow what’s appropriate for their circumstances. Then, when water is scarce and prices rise, farmers may find it’s most profitable to sell their water to serve rivers, cities, and fish."