We have this mantra that says we have to be business friendly and our economy will take off. Now sure there is some truth in it. But what may make money for other people may not be healthful for the rest of us. And here is the big point: In a free and open society we need to make our own choices based on being informed about those choices. Think about how the food industry fights almost every labeling requirement. Think how they have worked to water down the meaning of the word organic until it is almost meaningless. Why not label things GMO? I don’t think it hurts anyone, but give people a choice. Oh, and why not post the nutritional content and calories of foods so we can make an informed choice? Because it hurts their bottom line if that choice says we don’t want that Big Gulp.
Now I am not one who thinks you should outlaw certain foods because they are unhealthy. But on the other hand, choices have consequences for the rest of us. If a large portion of our population is obese because of their food choices, we all pay for that in our health insurance. So I would not outlawed the size of a drink, but I would require them to at least give the customer the information to know what they are doing to their bodies. And there is certainly not an objection from me with a sugar tax so that the cost of ingesting mass amounts of refined sugar is borne by those who choose to do it.
But yesterday I was bundling up the newspapers from this weekend for recycling and I notice an article in the SF Chronicle that caught my eye. Apparently a federal panel of nutrition experts told the federal government that consuming beef was not only bad for humans, but destructive to the environment. Sustainability isn’t just for San Francisco or Portland anymore, according to these preliminary recommendations. It is an attempt to point out the impact to the environment that our food choices make. Of course there was immediately backlash from the meat industry and their drones in Congress. As the SF Chronicle tells us:
… every five years, a food fight ensues because huge amounts of money are at stake, including the nation’s $10 billion-plus school lunch program. This is the first year, however, that the government’s advisory panel has significantly weighed environmental issues, drawing in a debate with a flavor that’s historically reserved for oil pipelines and auto emissions.
Now don’t get distracted by the arguments. It is about the money. It is also about knowledge provided to the consumer. Of course like all things, the meat industry is very short-sighted in that if sustainability of their meat products becomes a major issue, it opens all kinds of markets to those who do farm sustainably. But my point is just that business is not interested in consumer knowledge except that knowledge gain in their commercials. No, we don’t need no stink’in gov’ment regulation.
But the real question is about whether we ought to be worrying about farming sustainability. I would say a huge yes. Let me explain. In the “wet” months of January and February, California has received less a third of normal rainfall and March is heading to be the driest month on record. Is this just a normal drought or is this the world to come because of global warming? Well the models say this could be the world to come. We may have wetter years but on average things are going to get drier with warmer storms when we do get them. So water usage and sustainability is really important.
If you look at California, here are some interesting numbers. First is water usage by user in California:
Statewide argriculture accounts for 80% of Human usage.
To add to this, the state has looked at water usage based on a dry year and agriculture uses 52 % of the total water supply. Note that Urban use is small and yet most of the conservation focus is on that sector (get water only when ask for it at a restaurant, watering landscaping only 3-days a week, etc,). Here is another interesting graphic published by the state:
We can see that the biggest water user is alfalfa and dairy cows eat about 70% of the alfalfa produced in California (beef cows eat the rest). While almonds take up to 10% of the water supply, and use more water per plant, the king is alfalfa that is for beef or beef products (like cheese). Farmers are business men and they grow what produces the greatest return. And to keep food prices low (and California produces one-third of our vegetables and two-thirds of our nuts and fruits each year) water is heavily subsidized. To say the least, the stakes are high and the market-place is driving the wrong choices (water intensive crops) as our water supply dwindles. Let’s face it, if there was less demand for beef, precious short supplies of water would be more available for crops that are better for us and may sustain us.
So I will just leave you with this: Maybe instead of fighting sustainability evaluations, we might wake up and find out our very survival depends upon it. Instead of warping the market place by hiding information from consumers, we should let the market place work once Americans understand the real choices they are facing as water in the West diminishes.
Note 1: The study on water usage in agriculture is a great and scientific look at irrigation methods and crops we should be growing. But if you are a conservative, we don’t need any of that study and data stuff. Note that many of us who grow grapes drip our crops and use instrumentation to minimize water usage. Stress the crop to the maximum and then water. It actually lowers production, but increases quality. The other source is a good look at the industry as a business and why many farmers are their own worst enemy. Both are very good reads if you care about where we are going.
Note 2: “it takes more than a gallon of water to grow a single almond, and it may take 220 gallons of water to produce a large avocado. But pound-for-pound, there’s an order of magnitude more water needed to get meat and dairy to your plate. A stick of butter requires more than 500 gallons of water to make. A pound of beef takes up to 5,000 gallons.”