California Drought: No Solutions Coming from Big Agribusiness
Almost everyone is taking drastic measures to mitigate the impact of California’s drought crisis. The California Energy Commission raised the efficiency standards for toilets, urinals, and faucets, requiring all stores to sell only water conserving, “low-flow” models by 2016. Governor Jerry brown has issued an order requiring cities and towns to institute measures that will reduce water use by 25%. Small farmers and gardeners are using grey water dirtied from household chores to water their plants (see video embedded in this article from the New York Times). It seems that almost everyone is doing their part to conserve what little water the state has, everyone except farmers and wealthy Californians.
California’s agribusiness sector, which guzzles 80% of the water consumed in California each year, is exempt from the Governor’s water restrictions. Many farmers are watching as reservoirs and holding ponds dry up, and now they are searching for water deep underground. Agribusiness farmers water their large fields by pumping from bore wells, but this is causing another crisis. Ground water levels have dropped significantly in certain parts of the central valley due to over pumping, making it inaccessible to all but those who can afford the expensive costs of drilling deeper wells. There are even concerns that depleting water tables can destabilize an already earthquake prone landscape, leading to even more consequential natural disasters.
The reluctance to restrict water to California agribusiness comes in part from agribusiness companies’ political built upon the great size and wealth of the sector. California’s central valley is the vegetable garden of the entire U.S. California farms produce 95% of all broccoli, 92% of all strawberries, 91% of all grapes, 90% of all tomatoes, 99% of all almonds, and the list goes on. Many of these crops require enough water to suck even a well watered landscape dry. One single almond requires 1.1 gallons of water to grow. One large tomato needs 3.3 gallons. One head of broccoli, 5.4 gallons.
The amount of water that these crops require is not necessarily a problem in itself. But, industrial agriculture is most profitable for farmers and investors when it is centralized and concentrated on highly productive land. California’s central valley farmland has become so productive that it feeds markets stretching across the entire country, making central valley farmers rich and powerful.
Power and centralized production also make agribusiness unable to deal with the crisis at hand. Agribusiness is driven by profits, and as long as water is available and cheap, California’s farms are profitable. Consequently, they are trying to solve the problem by searching deeper and deeper for groundwater reservoirs, but this can only be a temporary solution to the problem. Soon the groundwater too will be depleted.
The drought and agribusiness’ problematic response to it is another sign of the need to radically rethink our food system. We need a food system that is decentralized, concerned with soil health, and adaptable to the challenges of climate change. Many in California are already urging farmers to adapt to drought conditions by switching to less water intensive crops like dryland tomatoes, potatoes, grapes, olives, and apple trees.
Switching crops will not solve the most troubling consequence of industrial agriculture, dead and dry soils. Industrial agriculture relies on harmful herbicides and fertilizers that kill all beneficial bacteria, earthworms, and beneficial plants in the soil, essentially killing the soil. Dead soils leach water and nutrients quickly, preventing soils from retaining water. Soil with many beneficial earthworms, bacteria, and small insects can easily absorb and retain water, even from occasional rain and from morning dew.
Industrial agriculture is a drought prone system of agriculture, and agribusiness companies are offering no solutions to the drought crisis. Policy makers and farmers need to start looking for unconventional solutions to drought crises, solutions that will require a reorganization of the food system.