Waste Not
Food Companies Have Opportunity to Show More Responsibility During California’s Drought Crisis

With California suffering one of its most dire water shortages on record, the Golden State’s political leaders are scrambling to find solutions to shore up an ever-diminishing supply of this precious resource. Some analysts suggest California only has about one year’s reserve of water left within its reservoirs. The reaction has been a clarion call to the state’s 37 million residents, who are already among the most water-efficient citizens in the United States, to face even tighter and more punishing water restrictions.

Naturally, the drought has created massive business opportunities for cleantech firms. Water recycling technology, beads that replace water in washing machines and smartphone apps are among the many technologies touted by entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and Southern California. And Wells Fargo has a robust program that seeks to encourage investment in new technologies to help California withstand disappearing water supplies while the state’s population continues to grow.

But with agriculture consuming 80 percent of the state’s water, some observers suggest that growers need to find more ways to become smarter about their collective water use. Agriculture provides about $40 billion to California’s economic output — but that figure, albeit impressive, is only two percent of the state’s total GDP. The issue has become a contentious one in the San Joaquin Valley, where counties such as Tulare and Fresno rank among the most productive farming regions in the United States and even the world. Signs proclaiming “Food Grows Where Water Flows” and signs blaming U.S. Representatives Jim Costa and Nancy Pelosi, as well as Senator Barbara Boxer, are a common sight along Interstate 5 and California Highway 99, the transportation lifelines of California’s Central Valley.

The San Joaquin Valley was once home to the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, Tulare Lake, but that eventually disappeared as farmers siphoned its water off for their crops. Farmers then aggressively pumped groundwater from the region’s aquifers once that source of water was depleted. Governor Edmund Brown, the current governor’s father, realized during the 1960s that the region had the potential to become an even greater agriculture powerhouse, so he led the charge to build the California Aqueduct system, one of the most impressive water infrastructure systems on the planet. But with successive droughts, that system has become inadequate in the view of many farmers.

Therefore current Governor Jerry Brown has proposed a $25 billion tunnel system that would divert water from the Sacramento River delta to the Central Valley. Meanwhile, farmers continue to drill deeper for groundwater; the result is that many areas of the valley are sinking, some as much as a foot per year. Of course that affects roads and other infrastructure, but the real long-term danger is that those aquifers could shrink to a point at which they could never be replenished. Critics point to California’s “use it or lose it” system of water allocation, which pushes farmers to use their water allotments annually, or it could disappear the following year.

Critics of California’s agriculture sector argue that the state’s farmers need to be more efficient, and arguably, many have been. Drive along remote roads such as Avenue 7 in Madera County, and the endless swathes of almond, pistachio and pomegranate orchards reveal modern drip irrigation systems that have replaced older and less efficient methods of irrigation. Then walk into a coffee house or bar in Fresno, Visalia, or Merced, and the chances are high one will overhear exasperated conversations over how farmers have been going above and beyond water conservation measures.

“What do people in Northern and Southern California want, thousands of jobs to disappear and have people in this area lose their homes?” one almond grower asked Sustainable Brands two weeks ago at a Starbucks in Fresno’s Fig Garden Village, a shopping center that showcases several luxury stores that often cater to the area’s wealthier farmers (or the heirs of landowners who sold their land to housing developers).

Almonds in particular have drawn the ire of critics who point to what they view as farmers’ excessive use of water in California. Much of the rant against almonds is polemic, laden with vitriol and does little to advance the discussion. Nevertheless, the laser-like focus on this little nut comes at a time when companies making and distributing almonds, and especially almond milk, have seen their profits soar. Almond milk is now the non-dairy milk alternative of choice, surpassing soy milk in U.S. sales. Healthful and packed with protein, fiber and healthy fats, they are one food option doctors often recommend to maintain a healthy heart.

But critics of the almond industry point to its water footprint, alleging that up to 1.3 gallons of water are needed over time just to cultivate one almond. Journalists have pointed out that as much as 80 percent of California’s almond crop is exported abroad, which essentially means Californians are essentially exporting their water abroad. Indeed, if the spigot is turned off to the almond growers, thousands of jobs will be lost. But the San Francisco Chronicle recently made the charge that the amount of water needed to grow almonds in California — as much as nine percent — is the equivalent to provide fresh water to the residents of the greater Los Angeles and San Diego regions combined. But does the choice have to be thousands of jobs in the San Joaquin Valley, or millions of jobs and lives in upheaval in Southern California?

None of the largest companies that sell almonds or almond milk, including Blue Diamond and Silk, responded to Sustainable Brands’ phone calls requesting an interview or comment. But one company, Califia Farms, which sells its high-end almond milks in stores such as Whole Foods, says the company is aware of the issue.

“We're also concerned about the drought in California and its implications for our entire state,” replied a Califia Farms spokesperson in a written statement to Sustainable Brands. “Please be assured that we only work with almond suppliers who prioritize water-usage reduction and efficiency across their operations and who embed sustainability in their business.

“All of our calculations indicate that almond milk farming uses at least 50 percent less water than industrial cow's milk dairy production,” continued the Califia Farms representative, “and we are working with industry experts to research into this further.”

The crisis in California actually gives food companies an opportunity to step up, work closer with their supply chains and inform their customers about the water impact their food products provide. Companies have long included tales about their water-efficient production technologies in their CSR reports. But these initiatives, while admirable, are mere drops in the ever-diminishing bucket of water — in this case, reservoirs — in California.

Food processers and distributors, who have made millions of dollars due to the increased interest in food such as almonds, pistachios and pomegranates, are also in a position to help their growers invest in water technologies to ameliorate their water impact. Drip irrigation should be a requirement, not a wish. Projects such as a solar desalination project that turns polluted water into potable water for farms should gain the support of companies that rely on the Central Valley to keep their business going. Advising and even investing in farmers goes beyond showing responsibility — it is also the way for these companies to prove that they are engaged with their suppliers and will protect their business in the long run.

And food companies could do more to educate the public about their products’ total water impact. The point is not to browbeat companies into labeling their foods so that consumers might believe their favorite foods are “bad” or wasteful when it comes to water consumption. Instead, the objective should be to allow customers to put their food purchases in perspective. After all, just about every crop and beverage has a massive water footprint from seedling to harvest to processing to point of sale. Disclosure of food products’ water footprint, in fact, could inspire competition among companies as consumers become more aware about the water requirements necessary to grow their favorite foods.

And most importantly at a higher level, a greater focus on water would move the needle on global challenges such as water pricing. For far too long, society has undervalued water. There needs to be greater value, priority and increased pricing placed on water so companies and consumers can make smarter and more strategic food choices. Water does not have to become the new oil if food companies lead the charge to reduce their impact on a source that will only become scarcer during the 21st century.

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