Water Conservation, Farming, and Food in California

Submitted by Barbara on Tue, 04/21/2015 - 19:33

Somewhere along the road in 2014, I read an article about Ugly Produce.  I had heard in the past that somewhere around 50% of our food goes to waste, but Ugly Produce brought home the idea in a whole new way.  I had always assumed the waste was the result of inefficiencies in the system—food that spoiled before it got to someone who wanted to eat it.  Ugly Produce was the first time I thought about perfectly good food being discarded because it didn’t meet some standard other than edibility. 


On some level I understood that because our food system is so deeply mechanized, there was a limited tolerance for odd shapes and sizes.  I understood that crooked carrots won’t fit into the carrot peeling machine, but I sort of thought that the ugly produce ended up as juice or puree or diced up in something where shape didn’t matter, but it is closer to the truth to say it just goes to waste. 


But all of this is background information and just setting a stage for California’s water crisis.  If you have ever traveled at all, you may have noticed that subjectively, warmer climates are plagued by insects.  Not so for California. Sever pest outbreaks are rare in California, in part because of some unique aspects to California’s climate such as clean oceanic air, long temperate summers and short cold winters that tend to kill pests and disrupt plant diseases.  We have one of the best climates in the world for growing fruits, vegetables and nuts and there is a certain logic to doing things where they can be done best.  So it’s understandable why California is feeding so much of the US and world, although maybe unsustainable.


Now put in your left hand the tremendous amount of waste in the food supply.  Reports vary, and unfortunately I have lost the link to the infographic I was using last year about how much produce never makes it off the farm in the US.  I do recall that it was around 50%, and that is inline with Ireland for which I can find current data.   NRDC says that farm waste averages around 7%, but can run as high as 70% in carrots.  Farmer’s self reported numbers vary between 1-30% and that is just at the farm level, before shipping processing and retail.



Put into your right hand the Fact that California’s agricultural sector consumes 70-80% of the state’s fresh water, and you can start to see the correlation.  We have to grow two broccolis for every one that will make it onto the dinner table.  It’s hard to be clear about the statistics, in part because we are talking about general facts that cross multiple crops, but you can begin to see the big picture.  Whatever the final numbers come down to, it is clear that this problem is not inconsequential.  With our bounty we must also absorb a commensurate portion of the costs and losses.   These problems continue right up the supply chain.

All along this processes from the farm to table, water is made subordinate to external factors like: 

•         Economics:  Farmers may plant extra crops to hedge against loss, or to take advantage of possible future gains should the market be strong.  These crops consume water too, although they may never be eaten.

•         Speed:  Machine harvesting is faster and cheaper, but wastes and damages more than delicate hand harvesting, thus adding to the water needed to grow the surviving produce.

•         Profit: If the price of broccoli falls, then harvesting may be unprofitable.  This type of loss is called “walkbys.”

•         Soil:  Soils used in commercial farming are very specialized.  They contain an extremely high portion of sand in order to decrease problems with soil-borne diseases, and because more water retentive clay soils compact and suffocate under the weight of farm equipment.  Sandy soils have poor water retention and increase the need for irrigation.

•         Weather:  Farmers prefer to have hands-on control of water rather than leaving it to mother nature.  Many farms are situated in the hot, dry central valley and must rely on piped water rather than unsteady rainfall patterns.

•         Aesthetics:  Ugly produce is passed by until it reaches a state where it is no longer salable.

•         Consumer whims, and the demands of 

•         Processing machinery:   High power sprayers and volumes of rinse water are turned over in order to substitute for manual labor needed to clean and separate food from stems and dirt.

This is why according to National Geographic it takes 108 gallons of water to grow and ear of corn, but according the CA Agricultural Extension it takes about 12 gallons to grow an ear of corn.  The commercially grown ear of corn must account for the high rates of loss, water-intensive processing, the water demands of high yield hybrids, hotter climates and specialized farming soils. 


So We understand that our system is so inefficient that it becomes completely unsustainable when water is limited.  What are the answers?  Here is where we get into opinions.  If it takes 108 gallons of water to grow a commercial ear of corn, and it takes 12 gallons of water to grow an ear of corn in a back yard farm where the plants have all the attention of an invested grower, high clay soils, rain barrels, hand harvesting, and a waste-not want-not attitude, which makes more sense?  If 100% of the population of California had the space, time, skills and inclination to grow all their own food, we could save as much as 90% of the water used by the agricultural sector which in turn consumes 80% of California’s water.   That would reduce our statewide water footprint by 72% instead of the 4.5% decrease that the mandated 25% cut in urban water will achieve.

One reason to embrace urban agriculture is indirectly highlighted but the graphic above.  The human footprint is almost everywhere.  Crop land, managed forest and urban centers blanket the state.  Some land is being returned to the wilderness, other is being developed.  California is loosing crop land at an rapid rate.  One way to shrink our over all human footprint is to layer our land uses.  Current zoning laws permit only very limited overlaps in use such as commercial/residential.  Integrating multiple purposes, moving farms onto our front yards, will help to maintain the urban greenscape while reducing the pressure on our shrinking farm land.  If radical improvements in efficacy are not made, the only other option is to clear even more wild land for farming perpetuating habitat fragmentation and loss.




Allow me to jump in and concede up front that is not possible for a wide range of reasons.  Lack of skills, time and space are among the most obvious.  Even so, these roadblocks are already shifting.  Movements such as Urban Homesteading, Locavor, Slow Food and the desire for healthy organic whole foods are slowly swinging the pendulum in a more positive direction.





Food security is another big reason to think about growing more food here in town.   In California we don’t tend to think about food security very much.  After all, we are living in the produce capital of the US if not the world.  How could we go hungry?  As always, there are inequalities in the system but beyond that, a major earthquake could radically disrupt our food system.  What will happen to all these water intensive farming techniques if the water distribution system is disrupted?  What about food processing and delivery? 



Another issue is overarching sustainability.  We talk a lot about food miles, the distance something must travel from farm, to processor, to market and then to our dinner table.    According to PBS food travels on average 1,500 miles from farm to plate.  We in California are probably below the average, but Im still thoroughly flummoxed by this.  It goes a long way to explaining why truck driver is the most numerous job in 29 states across the US and why the transportation sector accounts for 27% of green house gas emissions.  Planting a victory garden is comparatively less stressful on our pollution levels, roads, and CO2e footprint.  Walking to your front yard is much more sustainable than driving to the store.





There is one more issue to consider.  Businesses don’t like to abandon the machinery and technology they have invested in and rightly so.  Processing and farming are both low margin businesses and periodically called upon to make sizable investments.  How can we expect them to turn aside over night?  How can we turn a century old system of squatter’s rights into a rational water allocation system?  Personally, I don’t think we can expect either to bend to our will.  We are better off detaching ourselves to whatever extent possible from a system drowning in inefficiency.

Given the relative isolation from the source of our food faced by the community, the direction and momentum of a huge industry and the potential savings in water & food miles, I think it makes a great deal of sense for our town to do whatever it can to support urban agriculture.  We should take a look at what laws may stand in the way of urban agriculture.  We cannot expect people to invest when they may loose the rights to reap the profits of their labor.

And this is where Ugly Produce comes in for a third time.  When you have grown and harvest your very own carrot, no one cares how it looks. Anecdotally I can tell you that nothing is wasted from our personal victory garden.  The time we invest makes us very mindful of our food and what we do not eat is given to your friends and neighbors.  Anything verging on inedible is used to feed our chickens and the tough parts are added to the compost, returning it directly to the soil from which it was grown.

I know I said we cannot steer the agricultural industry, but it is inevitable that agriculture will have to bear the burden of these changes in time.  In the meantime, California should not be looking at the residential sector to make water cuts.  We should be working to change this expectation.  And to whatever degree we cannot, we should double down on the savings inside our home so that there is water to spare for those who can grow.   We need to provide reasonable regulation for urban farming and provide ample space for those who are looking to expand their food independence through community gardens and food forests. 


Thank You.





Other article read and influencing this document that may or may not be specifically referenced.