Keep showering, California.
Just lay off the burgers & nuts.

How changing what we eat is key to managing California’s megadrought.

By now, you’ve probably heard that California is experiencing a historic megadrought. Even if you don’t live in California, this affects you. The golden state grows one-third of the vegetables, two-thirds of the nuts and fruits, and ninety percent of the wine cultivated in the United States each year.

Governor Brown just signed an executive order to cut 25% of water usage across the state, which included many restrictions for residences and businesses. Everyone should do what they can as individuals to be mindful and use less water. But embargoing toilet flushing, turning off golf course sprinklers, and ending the daily hotel linen refresh will not fix our long term problems, as the sectors targeted in this order are only 20% of our total water consumption.

California’s real water hog?

Agriculture, which sucks up the other 80%. More specifically, the growing and manufacturing of proteins like nuts and livestock. Fascinatingly, the agriculture industry received no restrictions from the governor, just a mandate to report their usage to state regulators.

Parkinson’s law of triviality, more commonly known as the bike-shed effect, posits that organizations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues, rather than the more difficult and complex underlying problems. The example that framed the theory: a committee that needed to approve plans to build a nuclear power plant spent the majority of its time on simple issues like what materials to use for the bike-shed instead of tackling the complicated design of the plant itself.

The same is true of our current approach to California’s water crisis.

But first, just how bad is the drought?

NASA scientist Jay Famiglietti’s recent LA Times op-ed “California has about one year of water left. Will you ration now?” details the 34 million acre foot stored water deficit.

This is an acre foot. It’s not to scale.

If like me, you don’t measure water in acre feet, that’s a whopping 11,107,800,000,000 gallons[1] of water we’re short.

One almond = one gallon of water

80% of all water in California is used to support agriculture, and a whopping 10% overall goes just to almond production. That’s right: 10% of all water, almost 2x all commercial use, goes to the almond industry.

According to a recent piece by Mother Jones, one almond takes one gallon of water to grow. Walnuts are even worse, consuming 4.9 gallons of water apiece. The water used each year to grow almonds is equivalent to three years of water for the city of Los Angeles. The areas hit hardest by the drought and running the lowest on groundwater are, in fact, many of the same counties that do the majority of almond farming.

Source: National Drought Mitigation Center

But nuts are not solely to blame.

One lb of beef = 2500 gallons of water

Let’s translate that to more familiar currencies: showers and hamburgers. Turns out that the water needed to grow two and a half pounds of beef, or ten 4oz hamburgers[2], is the same amount the average person uses to shower. For a year.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Ten hamburgers = One year of showers

Using hamburger math, we discover that cutting the demand for beef by forgoing one quarter pounder almost every month is equivalent to forgoing personal hygiene every day for a year. Another part of the beef equation worthy of mention: the water it takes to grow livestock feed like alfalfa, which covers over 1 million acres of California, and is a major agricultural export to China.

But cows are not the only water hogs. Sorry, bacon lovers: one pound of pork requires 800 gallons of water. Apologies, benedict fans: a dozen eggs need 636 gallons of water. Even vegetarian proteins like soy, which clocks in at 216 gallons of water per pound, are water intensive. Growing protein consumes far more water than fruits and vegetables. And as protein is key to human nutrition, it’s time for us to consider other sources.

Numbers vacillate depending upon growing methods, and each has a different protein efficiency and bio-availability. These are the most commonly accepted numbers I found on my intertube travails.

80% of the world already eats insects.

Consider the cricket. Crickets are nutritionally complete, contain fiber, Omega-3 fatty acids, and a slew of other important vitamins and minerals. They take up just 2 square feet of pasture per pound versus beef’s 200 square feet. They emit zero greenhouse gases. And pertinent to this conversation, they require only one gallon of water for every one pound grown. Even the United Nations put out a report calling edible insects a “key to global food security”.

For the uninitiated, the idea of popping a whole insect into your mouth sounds rather unappealing. But properly prepared, they’re quite delicious. Insects, like coffee, can be roasted and milled into a fine powder that is easily incorporated into the foods we eat every day. Chips, cookies and bars containing this highly sustainable, all natural ingredient are already on the market. And if no one mentioned it, you would never know it’s there, as crickets, which are the most popular insect du jour in the US to date (the “gateway bug”, if you will), have a nutty flavor that ironically mirrors that of almonds.

The company I cofounded, Bitty Foods, is doing exactly what I just described, by creating an all purpose, high protein baking flour we turn into delicious cookies, or as a cup for cup flour substitute in any recipe. It’s this movement toward alternative protein sources and delivery mechanisms that could reduce our dependency on meat, and in turn, help reverse our current water shortage.

There’s a lot at stake.

California just passed Brazil to become the seventh largest global economy. According to Bloomberg, California’s gross domestic product (GDP), which includes the film industry and Silicon Valley, was $2.2 trillion in 2013, and continues to rise.

Though it consumes 80% of our water, agriculture only represents 2% of California’s total GDP. Almonds are a growing part of this economy. According to a report by the University of California Agricultural Issues Center, the almond industry generates more than 100,000 jobs, 25% of agricultural exports, and $11 billion in value to the California GDP. Interestingly, only 35% of almonds stay in the US. Over 50% go to Asia-Pacific and Western Europe, primarily to China/Hong Kong and Spain, which until 1987 was the world’s largest almond producer.

In previous droughts, farmland was temporarily fallowed to free up water for cities. For crops like cotton which can be replanted and harvested each year, this is a fine strategy. For crops like almonds that take years to mature and bear fruit, this strategy does not work. Although it seems like the easy and obvious solution, one that, on the surface, would cut 10% of water usage in one fell swoop, stopping almond production without a revenue stream to replace it creates an entirely new and unwieldy set of problems.

Wherein it is suggested that almond farmers start growing crickets

Cricket farming provides a major economic opportunity for almond farmers, or really any farmer, looking for more income. Current market rates for human-grade cricket powder are over $20/lb. A population of crickets goes from egg to full grown in just six weeks, similar to chickens. They grow best in small, warm spaces, which means shipping containers and low cost modular farms can be popped up practically anywhere. Best of all, they require very little water, land and feed.

If nothing changes, we face a future that will require much more than diminished hamburger consumption. So let’s get serious about changing the underlying problem, not just the bits and pieces that will chip away at but not fundamentally change our future.

The most powerful thing any of us can do as individuals is to shift the market demand from the goods that consume the most water to those that require less. That’ll go much farther than giving up the 645,802,325,581 showers necessary to offset our missing water.

Still curious?