A lot of water is essential to the food we all eat every day

Irrigation pipes sit along a dry irrigation canal on a field near Stockton in May. Farmers are being hit hard by the drought, and also being blamed for water use.
Irrigation pipes sit along a dry irrigation canal on a field near Stockton in May. Farmers are being hit hard by the drought, and also being blamed for water use. Associated Press file

The discussion of agriculture and the California drought has largely focused on how much water each crop takes and how much of the state’s water is used by farms. While headline grabbing, these figures do little to tell a more comprehensive story of how much water each of us needs for the food we eat in an average day.

Several months ago, we began an effort to understand how much water is captured in the food consumed in a typical day by an average American. To be accurate, it should include food grown here, as well as food and beverages we consume that are grown in other places in the world. It should also capture all water used to grow crops – rain, rivers and groundwater. Finally, it should be based on the foods we actually eat.

When we looked for this information, we came up short.

There was a lot of data on how much water was in a serving of a particular food – 24 gallons for rice, for example. It has been widely reported that agriculture uses 80 percent of California’s developed water; actually, it is 40 percent of the available water. We found little, however, about how much water people used in relation to the food they eat.

To fill that need for comprehensive analysis, we asked a nationally known science and engineering company, Exponent, to take on the task. The results, released Monday, are surprising.

It takes 1,326 gallons of water to grow the food an average American eats each day.

What’s more, 9 out of every 10 gallons an average person uses each day, worldwide, is from the consumption of food.

The intent of the study was simply to understand how much water people use, not to shift responsibility for how that water is used. We in agriculture have a good story to tell about water use, with statistics on the amount of food produced per gallon of water and other measurements of increased efficiency.

The reality is farmers grow crops for people to eat.

This fuller understanding of the amount of water captured in our daily meals also stands on its head the claims that agriculture uses an unfair share of water. Since water used on farms goes to grow food, aren’t all of us who eat that food the ultimate beneficiaries?

So where does this leave us? We hope the study provides a better understanding of our personal relationship with water and just how much we need every day to grow our food and keep us healthy. (You can find the report and an animated GIF based on the research at

For several years now, some people have portrayed water use as “good” versus “bad.” Beef and almonds are often portrayed as bad. Vegetables and foods grown outside California are considered good. Little discussion has been advanced on the meals we all eat.

Farmers are not bad, and eaters are not bad. We are all just doing the best we can to cope in this long, long drought.

We must set blame aside so we can focus instead on the hard work of storing more water, conserving as much as we can and making sure the California landscape does not devolve into a perpetual brown hue amid permanently pointed fingers.

Tim Johnson is president and CEO of the California Rice Commission. Rich Matteis is administrator of the California Farm Bureau Federation.