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To Solve California’s Water Crisis, We Must Change the Nation’s Food System


To Solve California’s Water Crisis, We Must Change the Nation’s Food System

Sonali Kolhatkar

The bold headline of a recent Los Angeles Times editorial by the hydrologist Jay Famiglietti starkly warned: “California has about one year of water left.


The statistic that should be more widely understood by Californians and the rest of the population is "residential use in California is about 4 percent, eighty percent is for agriculture.” I used to tell people that seventy five percent was the figure and often the reaction was incredulity – it couldn’t possibly be anywhere near that high.

During the widely publicized drought of a bunch of years ago, there were all sorts of water conserving suggestions bandied about: short showers, turn the shower on then off, soap up, then on again to rinse (forget about letting run till it reaches an endurable temperature); before then when you ate in a restaurant a glass of water was always served with your food, but after the publicity you had to specifically ask for water; toothbrushing was like showering, turn the faucet on, wet brush, turn it off, brush teeth, turn water on, fill glass with minimum amount to rinse mouth, so, then on long enough to rinse brush. Don’t flush after every pee.

Northern Californians for the most part took the suggestions seriously and were outraged and indignant at TV news reports of Southern Californians who defiantly continued watering their lawns to the point where water was draining into the sidewalk gutters and drains.

But agricultural methods of water usage are not investigatively reported on, and even if such reportage were allowed by the owners and operators, it would be tough to depict the how’s and why’s comprehensibly.


For a long time, I think, most people didn’t know where things like steaks, pork chops, and chicken really CAME from - live animals. Produced and then processed into food. Neither do most people realize where their water comes from. In the Midwest, we see the Great Lakes, so naturally, our water will be an everlasting resource. When people hear about things like PCBs and petroleum waste in their water, they reckon the problem is so diluted, it’s not a problem. Likewise, because food itself has become commodified, people see it as a part of the big puzzle of American commerce, not as food items and transport networks. After all, people who use rain barrels or cisterns, solar panels, and actively conserve what they can, are hippy-dippy dweebs, not “real Americans”. The trouble with that is - the 1% will always have access to what they need. The rest of us will be fighting for scraps. State legislators, and Congress, don’t care.


I think it interesting to look at western “civilization” notions about nature and history and how these play out in consequences. Once removed, hundreds of years ago, in the European enlightenment, the practice of writing leads to a comic variation on thinking: I think therefore I am, and the indivisible creatural universe that does not think with the human methodologies has no ‘mind’.
In the mean time the dynamics down to energetic elemental structure that results in human ‘thinking’ - because it is excluded as fundamental function and content, is subjected to the aggregating toxic fallacies that result in breakdown. And this occurs at precisely the level of the of the mistaken premises that give rise to the deadly hubris veiled in crises so desperate for ‘heroes’. Those heroes are sought, counter to Einstein’s admonition that a problem cannot be solved from the same perspective that gave rise to it.
Western institutions have thoroughly internalized the fossil, the notion of the dinosaur, and seeing its size and scale mistakenly assumes that - ah, because human beings think - and therefore are, they can do the dinosaur scaling and nature has noting to do with it.
The obvious dissociative disconnect between the scale of the individual and the monolithic corporation/institution reflects all that is historically excluded from the increasingly tragicomic failure to see life as constantly evolving indivisible organism - with a ‘mind’ far exceeding the devolution into ideologically induced entropic terror, which in turn fires up a mad clawing from precisely the perspective giving rise to the problems.
There have always been people who assiduously and lovingly spend their lives paying attention to the vast scaling subtleties in ancestral knowledge to better understand the mind of Mother Nature - who as Leonardo Boff noted - responds to crisis with flowers. But hey, scorn is fast becoming the only consistent key characteristic of the ideological war against inclusion.


BRAVO! An article about the food system that does not degenerate into a “everybody must become vegan” fest.

A careful reading of many of the “anti-meat” studies behind the media juggernauts actually claim feed-lot, industrial-scale meat production and similarly chemical/petro-heavy agriculture generate less GHG’s and are more “sustainable” than local, small/medium mixed farming methods. And when carefully dissected the “green revolution” higher yields/nutrition promised by GMOs and industrial farming are not sufficiently greater (if at all) to justify the environmental damage caused.

Like the article points out, the “gains” are only on balance sheets and profit margins, not in true GHG reductions or sustainable culture.


Anyone driving to Toronto by way of Buffalo notices, starting just a little ways into Canada, the big complexes of greenhouses growing year-round produce for Toronto. And if you go into the grocery stores, most veggies do indeed have a sticker that says “produce of Canada/Produit du Canada”. Most veggies southern Ontarians eat are grown in southern Ontario. And where do the producers sell their veggies? Not to the warehouses of big corporate chain Safeway, Kroger etc. - who only buy produce from huge suppliers, but at the Ontario Food Board Terminal where all producers, small and large, have the same access to the market.

We are long overdue to be doing this, or more like long overdue to returning to doing this. New Jersey (the “Garden State”) and nearby areas of Pennsylvania once supplied NYC and Philly with almost all of their produce. The Pennsylvania highlands used to produce huge amounts of potatoes.

And all the eastern US’ apples and peaches came from Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York. One never saw one of those unnatural-looking abominations called a “Washington apple”.


Very good points. I live in Ottawa (Eastern Ontario) and a significant portion of our produce comes from Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec, some from Southern Ontario (i.e. its been YEARS since I’ve had a Georgia peach; most of the peaches I’ve eaten for the past decade or so are from the Niagara region).

In fact, I noticed at my local food chain (Metro), in the summer to fall months, I have the option of buying certain produce (mainly legumes) from local producers. Moreover, the pricing scheme encourages buying local (it costs less to buy Ontario lettuce than the Chilean variety sold by the same chain, in the same store).

I assumed this was a model used throughout North America. I had no idea it was not the case south of the border.


Here in Pittsburgh we had an old produce warehouse district (The Strip District) that has been abandoned except for the space being used for various boutique-type businesses and soon, hipster and yuppie-lofts. There is also a small, boutiquish “Public Market” which is a completely inadequate replacement for the original public markets the city neighborhoods used to have.

In the US, produce wholesale and distribution is done almost entirely by the big national or regional chains through their own warehouses. This means that they almost entirely do business with big growers, within a centralized system that required almost all the produce production come from just a few areas - California and Florida, or Mexico. The big chains then often have virtual monopolies on whole cities, In Pittsburgh, it is “Giant Eagle” and that’s about it. Smaller local producers are limited to selling at seasonal farmers markets or the “natural foods”/food co-op type places.

Its a system that is extremely vulnerable to any kind of natural or social disruption. If something upset Giant Eagle’s distribution network, it would be major food shortage emergency here.

That’s “Free Markets” for you.


A water requirement by product protein and useable calories needs to be determine so resources can be used in the most efficient manner. In determining meat, milk, and dairy products water use water to produce feed crops must also be included.



You may have some very important things to say. But your writing style, filled with dense, overly long sentences full of neologisms and adjectives coined-on-the-spot renders incomprehensible whatever you are trying to say.


I am not so sure that figure is accurate. Ag uses a lot of water, but millions of people crammed into urban areas of southern California with their fantastic lifestyles and swimming pools probably use more than farmers in the central valley. The LA river has been a dead cement monstrosity for as long as I’ve been alive. But population growth has continued to increase.

California is going to come through this if we don’t let hysteria get the better of all of us, and allow Wall St. to set the price of water.


It’s incredible when compared with the Ontario example, especially considering the longer growing season in most US states (even compared to southern ON). I did my undergrad in western PA – Slippery Rock – so I am familiar with Butler Country…less so with Allegheny. Butler Co. has fertile land that could produce a wide range of crops for people from Erie southward to Wheeling, WV. And from what I remember there were pockets of poverty throughout the area (in rural places like Slippery Rock to Pittsburgh and Aliquippa). Local produce would be much cheaper, and encourage better nutirition habits.

It’s a perverse system. Rather than encourage local produce from family farms, that would have a reduce carbon footprint and come at a lower cost, food distribution encourages corporate agri-business. This in turn relies on seasonal workers working for peanuts in order to boost the bottom line and comes with health risks. (I’m thinking of the E coli outbreaks from CA produce a while back that affected tomatoes, strawberries and (I think) spinach…had there been a cheaper, local alternative, the incidences of e coli would have been minimal).


The tailwaters from flood irrigation alone would overflow the pools in southern ca.


Sure be interested to see a link or two to those anti-meat juggernaut studies.


So how is the Pittsburgh East Side Coop doing?


This came in from Roots of Change in case anyone is interested:

Sign the petition: Support Seismic Shift in Food Policy

And join Roots of Change and the following allies who are sending this same petition to their networks: Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, Food Democracy Now, Friends of the Earth, Green America, Healthy Food Action, Natural Resources Defense Council and Organic Consumers Association.


As food co-ops go, the East-End food co-op (EEFC) is OK - It’s location in one of the poorer parts of Pittsburgh keeps it from being the sort of unbearably snobby bourgeois place that food-co-ops are in much of the US.

But nonetheless I remain suspicious of the EEFC after they engaged in dirty union-busting tactics against a union organizing drive numbers of years ago - and it seems that their employees remain rather cowed. I have often collected Green Party candidate ballot signatures on the sidewalk in front, and have noted the way employees avoid me. This is usually because management warns employees to avoid poeple with clip-boards if they want to keep their jobs - as such clip-board bearers tend to be union organizers - or maybe OSHA or state health department inspectors!


Butler county is unfortunately a rather right-wing county - as is most of western PA once one leaves the Pittsburgh City limits. Butler County’s rep in the State Gen. Assembly - Daryl Metacafe, is an absolute right wing jerk.


The figures on GHG output by various agricultural/meat-producer sources is in US gov’t online info. Sorry, I don’t keep such links readily available, I’m not a professional activist and merely pass on the concepts I have stumbled across from time to time.

The specific study was noted in a previous Common Dreams “people need ot reduce meat consumption article”.


And has anyone thought about not letting more people keep moving in? people can live anywhere…but we can’t grow food anywhere…there should be a moratoriaum on more places to live and more people moving in.