Monoculture, livestock, and the California drought

A few years ago, I attended a presentation at the Sebastopol Veterans Building that featured, among others, two professors from Sonoma State University. Norman Solomon was among them, but I don’t think he was the one who pointed out about globalization that a globalized food system specializes and concentrates food production in particular areas.

This is in accordance with the notion of labor specialization. People should do what they can do well, with the idea that they can make more money selling their products and services for less than their competitors. The speaker pointed out that with the food system, and other essential production, that means greater economic efficiency but less resilience. The Mother Jones story that was on my Twitter feed today is nearly a month old, but it illustrates the problem (fig. 1):

Figure 1. Crop maps, used under fair use
Figure 1. Crop maps, used under fair use

California is suffering an epic drought—possibly the worst in 500 years—and at least 80 percent of the water in this state goes to agriculture.[1] Farmers are scared and farm workers are unemployed. It is a disaster for California’s Central Valley that intensifies a long-running argument between environmentalists and farmers.[2]

Contributing to the problem is that California’s agriculture is pretty much as corporate, and as wasteful, and as polluting as any, anywhere. And environmental effects are an “external” cost until, that is, there isn’t water. Some farmers—and I’m unclear as to how many of them are corporate, or how many of them are family, but I understand that California agriculture is almost all corporate—won’t get any water at all, hence the job losses.[3] The corporate farms will undoubtedly have sufficient resources that they can ride out the drought. Family farmers might not, hence the possibility of increased concentration of farms in corporate hands.

But more immediately, people are going to be paying more for food because so much of it is grown in California. We have counties that produce more than 30 percent of the U.S. total of some crops; the maps in the illustration show crops which California produces over 70 percent—the only one shown that’s less than 90 percent is lettuce—of the U.S. total (fig. 1). Maybe you can get by without nuts—actually, I eat a lot of them—but when we start talking about strawberries, lettuce, and tomatoes, it seems to me we’re talking about some staples.

Some have hoped for a bright side, that the drought might force some livestock operations out of business. The livestock industry is simply not sustainable, and the claim that it uses 100 times the water for a unit of food actually understates the matter:

Producing 1 kg of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than producing 1 kg of grain protein (8). Livestock directly uses only 1.3% of the total water used in agriculture. However, when the water required for forage and grain production is included, the water requirements for livestock production dramatically increase. For example, producing 1 kg of fresh beef may require about 13 kg of grain and 30 kg of hay (17). This much forage and grain requires about 100 000 L of water to produce the 100 kg of hay, and 5400 L for the 4 kg of grain. On rangeland for forage production, more than 200 000 L of water are needed to produce 1 kg of beef (30). Animals vary in the amounts of water required for their production. In contrast to beef, 1 kg of broiler can be produced with about 2.3 kg of grain requiring approximately 3500 L of water.[4]

What’s more likely is that livestock operations will sell off their cattle, hunker down and hope that rains will return. Even in relatively wet Humboldt County, “[Clint Victorine, owner of Eel River Organic Beef . . . one of the largest grass-fed beef producers in the state] has had to slaughter his cattle at 800 to 900 pounds instead of the usual 1,050 pounds because he doesn’t have the grass to feed them. That’s a loss of $200 to $300 a head, he said.” It seems to be ranchers—there are apparently less than twenty of them in California—who allow their cattle to eat exclusively grass who are being the worst affected,[5] rather than the vastly more abusive factory farms that feed cattle corn—a diet that’s not healthy for the cattle and helps to keep some veterinarians employed.[6]

A problem is that most people do not see meat as a luxury, let alone an unhealthy and entirely unnecessary one that animals give their lives for, but as a nutritional necessity. They’re wrong. On May 5, I will have been vegan for six years, after being a meat-and-potatoes eater who still hates vegetables for most of my life. It isn’t expensive either—my food budget is less than $200 per month. The claim that some people make, that they “can’t” go vegan is simply specious.

That means that we’ll continue to waste water on the livestock industry, when we could grow a lot more food if we didn’t, perhaps even enough to feed the starving all around the world, including in our own country. And don’t listen to the nonsense about manure being needed as fertilizer: An Ohio farmer has cut his use of chemical (not manure) fertilizer dramatically by changing how he farms.[7]

But we ought at least to notice the vulnerability of monoculture, where for instance in Sonoma County, where I live, you’ll find wine grapes growing as far as the eye can see. We need to be growing more actual food locally, transporting it for shorter distances, and husbanding our resources—especially water—much more carefully.

    Figures:

  1. Crop maps[8]
  1. [1]Alex Park and Julia Lurie, “It Takes How Much Water to Grow an Almond?!” Mother Jones, February 24, 2014, http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/02/wheres-californias-water-going; One Green Planet, “California’s Drought — Who’s Really Using all the Water?” January 24, 2014, http://www.onegreenplanet.org/news/californias-drought-whos-really-using-all-the-water/
  2. [2]Jennifer Medina, “California Seeing Brown Where Green Used to Be,” New York Times, February 13, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/14/us/california-seeing-brown-where-green-used-to-be.html; Evelyn Nieves, “California’s farm towns are losing jobs and dying of thirst,” Salon, February 13, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/02/13/californias_farm_towns_are_dying_of_thirst_and_losing_jobs_partner/; David Perlman, “California drought a ‘train wreck’ for Central Valley farms,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 8, 2014, http://www.sfgate.com/science/article/California-drought-a-train-wreck-for-Central-5217669.php; Matt Weiser, “California farms to get some drought relief,” Sacramento Bee, March 18, 2014, http://www.sacbee.com/2014/03/18/6248393/california-farms-to-get-some-drought.html; Matt Weiser and Mark Glover, “Forecast: ‘Zero’ water for many Central Valley farms,” Sacramento Bee, February 21, 2014, http://www.sacbee.com/2014/02/21/6178681/forecast-zero-water-for-many-central.html
  3. [3]Evelyn Nieves, “California’s farm towns are losing jobs and dying of thirst,” Salon, February 13, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/02/13/californias_farm_towns_are_dying_of_thirst_and_losing_jobs_partner/; Matt Weiser, “California farms to get some drought relief,” Sacramento Bee, March 18, 2014, http://www.sacbee.com/2014/03/18/6248393/california-farms-to-get-some-drought.html; Matt Weiser and Mark Glover, “Forecast: ‘Zero’ water for many Central Valley farms,” Sacramento Bee, February 21, 2014, http://www.sacbee.com/2014/02/21/6178681/forecast-zero-water-for-many-central.html
  4. [4]David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, “Sustainability of meat-based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78, no. 3 (2003), http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/660S.full
  5. [5]Stacy Finz, “California drought: Grass-fed beef industry reeling,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 21, 2014, http://www.sfgate.com/food/article/California-drought-Grass-fed-beef-industry-5253718.php
  6. [6]Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin, 2007).
  7. [7]Tom Philpott, “One Weird Trick to Fix Farms Forever,” Mother Jones, September 9, 2013, http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/09/cover-crops-no-till-david-brandt-farms
  8. [8]Alex Park and Julia Lurie, “It Takes How Much Water to Grow an Almond?!” Mother Jones, February 24, 2014, http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/02/wheres-californias-water-going

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