California Forum

Another View: Why knock almonds? Alfalfa consumes twice the water

Most of the focus about water-thirsty crops has been on almonds, but when you consider that California produces 80 percent of the world’s almond supply and that alfalfa uses more than twice the water that almonds do, then the almond math starts to change.
Most of the focus about water-thirsty crops has been on almonds, but when you consider that California produces 80 percent of the world’s almond supply and that alfalfa uses more than twice the water that almonds do, then the almond math starts to change. Fresno Bee file

Ever since Gov. Jerry Brown’s executive order asking Californians to cut their water use by 25 percent, restaurants won’t serve glasses of water unless requested. However, they will happily serve a hamburger, which is equivalent to 10,560 glasses of water. Add a couple slices of cheese to that burger, and that’s another 1,600 glasses.

Many people are aware that 80 percent of California’s developed water supply is dedicated to agriculture, and that shorter showers and watering your lawn less won’t actually end the drought because urban water use is only 20 percent of total consumption in the state.

But what many don’t realize is how that 80 percent breaks down and what crops are the real culprit – and that we don’t have to wait for massive agricultural policy changes in order to do something about it.

Most of the focus has been on almond crops, which use roughly 10 percent of all California’s water (“More almond groves planted”; Page A1, April 17). But when you consider that California produces 80 percent of the world’s almond supply and that alfalfa uses more than twice the water almonds do, then the almond math starts to change.

Unlike almonds, alfalfa is a low-value crop primarily used as feed for livestock. About 70 percent of alfalfa grown in California is used in dairies, and much of the rest is exported to Asia for animal feed – to the tune of 100 billion gallons per year.

California’s livestock industry uses 47 percent of the state’s water, yet only produces 1.4 percent of the world’s dairy and 0.4 percent of the world’s beef. Not only is alfalfa the most water-intensive crop in California, weighing in at 1.702 billion gallons of water annually, but it’s not economically efficient for our state to be growing it.

The Pacific Institute’s 2012 report, California’s Water Footprint, states that animal feed and alfalfa/hay use 20.5 million acre-feet of water per year – compared to almonds, which require 2.25 million acre-feet per year. Almost half of the average Californian’s water footprint is associated with the consumption of meat and dairy products.

After celebrating the 45th anniversary of Earth Day last week, Californians should feel empowered to know that a simple dinner choice can make a significant contribution to the planet and California’s drought. So here’s my advice: Californians need to lay off the cheeseburgers, and the media needs to lay off the almonds.

Lauren Michele has a master’s degree in environmental policy from UC Davis and is the founder of Policy in Motion, a consulting firm based in Sacramento specializing in climate change policy.

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