Holy Cow! Crops That Use Even More Water Than Almonds

Alfalfa and pasture that feed cattle consume the most water in drought-stricken California.

(Photo: George Rose/Getty Images)

May 11, 2015
Todd Woody is TakePart's editorial director, environment.

Forget almonds. The elephant in the room when it comes to water-hogging food is a cow.

Amid California’s worsening drought, almonds have become the Kardashian of crops, demonized for extravagantly consuming 10 percent of the state’s agricultural water supply. Indeed, there’s a case to be made against the nut: A new report from the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit research organization, finds that almonds (along with pistachios) are among the top consumers of water, at the rate of 1.2 trillion gallons a year. (California supplies 80 percent of the world’s almonds and is the United States’ fruit and veggie basket.)

But putting a hamburger on your plate or a gallon of milk in your refrigerator makes the amount of water it takes to grow almonds look like peanuts. The crop that consumes the most water in California is alfalfa, which is largely grown as feed for cattle and dairy cows. Pasture grown for grazing livestock is the third-largest water user. That means keeping cows fat (if not happy) consumes 2.7 trillion gallons of water a year.

Water Use

(Illustration: Pacific Institute)

Alfalfa and pasture are also the second- and third-most-water-intensive crops in California, requiring irrigation to be applied at depths of between three-and-half feet and five-and-a-half feet, according to the Pacific Institute’s calculations. (Almonds and pistachios are the fourth-most-water-intensive crops.)

Vineyards are far less water-intensive. So we should forgo steaks for sauvignon blanc, right?

Not quite, said Heather Cooley, the report’s author and director of the Pacific Institute’s Water Program.

“A shift toward a meat-driven diet does put pressure on water resources,” Cooley said. “But not eating meat is not going to solve California’s water problems, and it’s not something that will solve this drought.”

“I don’t think we can get to a place where we dictate what type of crops are grown where,” she added. “Farmers decide to grow crops based on water availability, labor, and other costs.”

Water Intensity

(Illustration: Pacific Institute)

For instance, the picture looks different when you consider the economic productivity of water used in agriculture. (In California, 80 percent of the state’s developed water supply is devoted to farming.) Take those evil almonds. There’s a reason the amount of water almond and pistachio trees use jumped 54 percent between 2000 and 2010: They’re very profitable, generating $4.4 billion a year, or $1,200 for each acre-foot of water. (An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to flood an acre to a depth of one foot.) Almonds and pistachios consumed 5.2 million acre-feet in 2010.

Vineyards used far less—1.6 million acre-feet that year—but wrung $2,470 from every acre-foot of water.

Alfalfa is both water-intensive and comparatively unproductive, generating only $175 for every acre-foot. But as the Pacific Institute notes, a crop’s ultimate value can exceed its sale price. “Alfalfa supports the state’s beef and dairy industry and the value it produces; likewise, almonds support several industries and are now used in beauty and food products, e.g., almond butter and almond milk,” the report states.

Water Productivity

(Illustration: Pacific Institute)

But are there some crops that just shouldn’t be grown in the California desert as the state suffers through the worst drought in recorded history, with no end in sight?

Take rice. It’s the most water-intensive crop and the fourth-biggest user of water. Yet rice generates only $374 per acre-foot of water.

“The better approach is to protect rivers and streams and aquifers to make sure we’re not taking too much out of the system and price water appropriately,” said Cooley. “By doing that, you will change what farmers grow and where they grow.”

In other words, if water is priced high enough, farmers will stop growing crops like rice.

“I don’t think what we grow today will look like anything we’ll grow in 10 or 15 years,” said Cooley. “That will be determined by what the population does and the climate does.”

One of the biggest immediate challenges, though, is obtaining accurate information about agricultural water use. “There are large uncertainties regarding agricultural water use due to a lack of consistent measurement and reporting, time lags in releasing information, and confusion about definitions,” the report states.

As Cooley noted, the water-use numbers may not reflect switches to more efficient irrigation or other changes. “To truly understand the risks and opportunities for water use in California, more and better data are needed,” she wrote in the report.

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