Food, Sustainability, Water

Water-Wise Food Choices

Food and water choices for rural Californians that can improve water cycles or at least lessen the damage to them:
• Minimize water use and eliminate wasting water.
Capture rain and phase-out using your well.
• Size your garden or small orchard to your rainwater holding tanks.
• Change your gardening habits: grow in the winter and spring, not the summer.
• Grow climatically-appropriate food plants that require little or no water.
• Make acorns and feral pigs, if locally abundant, staples of your diet.
• Minimize purchase of water-intensive foods (see below).


While most of us buy food grown outside of our watershed, often far beyond our region, unsustainable water extraction for agriculture is taking place everywhere, and the water cycle knows no boundaries. So, if it fits the context of your life, it makes sense to help out the California–and global–water crisis by reducing consumption of water-intensive foods. Locally-produced water-intensive products include walnuts, almonds, rice, pecans, melons, corn, peppers, potatoes, watermelon and feed-lot meat and dairy. Phasing these foods out of our diets could keep more water in California’s creeks and rivers.

Even better, eating wild and feral foods as often as possible can greatly reduce your water footprint. We eat acorns regularly and believe that they can easily replace all corn and most other grains. Eating locally-produced, rainwater-fed vegetables and fruit, as well as local eggs, meat and dairy can help out, too, especially if the farmer or rancher uses water-conserving methods like dry-farming and small-scale, predator-friendly managed grazing with as little hay as possible.

As for growing some of your own food, we recommend irrigating with captured rainwater and growing in the fall-winter-spring when irrigation needs are small or non-existent. Feral greens are possible much of the year with little water, and these include mallow, dandelions, yellow dock, poke, lambsquarters, nettles, purslane, clover and chickweed. Many cool-season vegetables like fava beans, peas, radishes, turnips, carrots, potatoes, kohlrabi, fennel, cilantro, parsley, dill, arugula, cress, onions, garlic, kale, mustard and many Asian greens can be grown in the fall-winter-spring in much of our region with little or no irrigation, especially if rain harvesting earthworks are employed. Asparagus’s growing season matches our rainy season pretty well, too, and often requires little or no additional water, and our experience is that gophers aren’t too interested in it. If gophers are abundant in your tended plot, they can be eaten as well, along with rabbits and ground squirrels, though we have to admit, we haven’t gotten that far yet. In fact, these so-called “pests” are critical members of the local community of life, having evolved here, and eliminating them has repercussions on the whole local food web. If you’ve got lots of rodents, consider growing foods they don’t like instead. If you are fortunate enough to live on lots of land, hunting larger animals is an option as well, but we don’t encourage hunting any species whose numbers are not stable or increasing. The feral pigs are your best bet.

A couple of mature fig trees can supply a year’s worth of dried fruit for a family, and for fresh fruit, blackberries can fill the role for one month a year, while cactus fruit can supply another month’s worth (or more if you have lots of cacti, as these fruits store very well). Wolfgang Rougle’s informational little book Sacramento Valley Feast has many more feral food suggestions.

In the garden, we have started planting agaves, yuccas, and cacti. While none are native to this region, one commonality is their low-water need. Agave and cacti are feral in the bigger region, so the question for us is whether they can tolerate our soil. All three of these genera were staple food plants of the indigenous peoples of what is now called the Southwest. This is a long-term approach, as none of these begin bearing edible fruits, leaves, stalks or flowers for several years, but if the recent shift to a much more arid winter only gets worse, these plants may be very happy here, and we’ll be glad we have them, too. Additionally, all three are effective living fences, though deer apparently love yucca fruit. So we’re planting those behind the agaves.

We also have climatically-appropriate black mission figs, jujubes and goldenhorn in our rainwater-fed garden. We have sized this garden to match the 3000-gallon tank that catches rain coming off the house’s roof. Our goal is to not use our well for food production.

We see that there are ways to graze domesticated animals in this region that require no water-pumping, no fossil fuels and no new industrial products, making this a candidate for a truly sustainable subsistence livelihood. We think that careful management of domesticated animals can provide a significant portion of a sustainable human diet here without reducing native species populations. On the other hand, the current way that walnuts, rice and other water-intensive crops are grown here is unsustainable and incompatible with nearly all native species–plant and animal. Most agricultural fields in California, like the one below, were once incredibly diverse living communities, whether they were perennial grasslands mixed with forbs, oak woodlands or riparian forest. Of course, many of these areas were also home to large indigenous human populations as well.


The window of opportunity for a voluntary transition to local food systems is ever narrowing. All ecological indicators imply that a secure food system based on the current norms of production may already be a thing of the past. Rather than a struggle for survival as the main shaper of a future food system, as will result from the ongoing degradation of soil and water, we endorse a rapid transition toward locally-raised foods produced with regenerative agricultural techniques, as well as wild and feral foods. We need our food system to facilitate–or at least not hinder–the restoration of native plants, fishes and land animals.

So we don’t encourage putting a lot of energy into judging individual dietary choices unless you’ve first put a lot of energy into changing the economic system, which drives the degradation of land and water through making food a commodity, a source of profit and power.

Of course personal food choices are not irrelevant because one of the few forms of real power we have in this economy-dominant way of life is to vote with our dollars, but it is a tiny vote and only generates culture-changing power when enough of us do it. The organic farming movement is one that has a solid decades-long track record of slowly moving land stewardship in the right direction, and it is because enough people vote with their dollars for organic. But voting with our dollars means we are still feeding the system that is undermining life on Earth. And it has become a very serious trap at this point because the primary land use around the globe is agriculture. Agriculture is what feeds 7 billion people, but agriculture, as it is practiced across most of the globe, both at present and in the past, organic or not, will ensure societal collapse. That is the endpoint of an entire way of living based on unsustainable use of the most important life-giving substances on the planet: soil and water. So, we think that if you are privileged enough to be able to make food choices, choosing less-destructive foods is a moral imperative, given the biological crises we face. But everything about personal choices is within the context of each individual’s circumstances. Therefore, rather than put a lot of energy into defining and debating what one’s diet is going to be, we’d all be better served by focusing our energies into systemic issues that underlie the small differences in the level of destructiveness embodied in the foods we eat. For example, meat, by itself is not a problem, it is the economic imperative that causes ranchers to sell animals to CAFOs. Likewise, irrigated cultivation agriculture, as practiced in the small percentage of the globe where it can be truly sustainably done, is not a problem, but it is a nightmare for life on Earth when coupled with the capitalist agenda of infinite growth. Doing whatever we can to change people’s minds about capitalism, agriculture and national pride, for example, is the kind of transition that we see worthy of pursuing. Not because we think enough people can be swayed to avoid societal collapse, but because after societal collapse, there might be a sliver of a chance that the obvious sanity of living within the means of the land that sustains you could take hold.

Agriculture and Water

Agriculture is the single largest user of water worldwide, dwarfing everything else. Drinking, cooking, and washing by seven billion people combined with all industrial water consumption pale in comparison to watering crops and livestock. Global agriculture uses nearly two quadrillion gallons of rainwater and irrigation water annually—enough to cover the entire United States with 2 feet of water. Obviously, crops and animals need water to thrive and sustain the human population, but intensive agricultural practices exert more stress on watersheds than rainfed cultivation of ecologically appropriate crops. (Read more.)

Water experts calculate that we humans are now taking half the available fresh water on the planet—leaving the other half to be divided among the millions of other species.[i] Since we depend on many of those species for our own survival (they provide all the food we eat and oxygen we breathe, among other “services”), human hogging of water is a grave danger. If we look at it species by species, we find that the heaviest water use is by the animals humans raise for meat in confined feeding operations (CAFOs) based on grains. These grains account for 98% of the embodied water in a pound of hamburger. [ii] So, one of the easiest ways to reduce demand for water is to reduce the amount of grain-fed meat we eat. However, an even more important question than which species of human food sources demand the most water, is what can we do to humanely reduce the human population to a level that the Earth can sustain using regenerative food production methods? Transforming our food system to be completely regional needs to be part of that plan.

Embodied Water in Food

The daily drinking water requirement per person is between one-half and one gallon, but it takes 530 to 1320 gallons of water to produce one person’s daily food, globally, while in the US the number skyrockets to 4200 gallons. It seems that growing your own produce in our hot arid summer climate often increases that daily food figure.

A few examples of embodied water in our food: each apple typically represents about 18 gallons of water used; a pound of rice requires 130 to 400 gallons; it takes 40 gallons of water to produce a pint of beer. [iii] This information is good to know, but it ignores a very important aspect–extraction. Chocolate is a prime example, as it embodies an outrageous 2060 gallons per pound, but most of that is in the form of rainfall where the plants are growing. If irrigation is not required to grow food, unsustainable extraction of water is therefore not embodied in that food. Climatically appropriate plants require no irrigation. Of course wheat can be grown in the great plains without irrigation, but doing so replaces a far more productive biological community–perennial native grasslands feeding bison, pronghorn and thousands of other species. Looking solely at water, we think the term “embodied extracted water” would be more informative. We could not find such information, so the example below is our attempt to demonstrate this.

That pound of grain-fed beef mentioned above embodies 1847 gallons of water [iv], 98% of which is for producing the grains. Even if the grains were grown without irrigation, that water (rain) could have been used to grow a truly sustainable native grassland. On the other hand, a pound of pastured beef feeding only on grass and local, dry-farmed hay would represent only 2% of the 1847 gallon average, or 37 gallons. And most of the land, if the grazing is well managed, can support healthy populations of the full assemblage of species for the area. There is a sacrifice zone for the hay production, so some land will have its natural composition destroyed. If the hay is irrigated, we add about 40 gallons per pound of hay consumed divided by the weight of the animal times the percentage of diet made up of hay. So a 1200 pound steer slaughtered at 18 months that ate grass 60% of his life and irrigated hay the other 40%, would embody (40% of 18 mos.= 216 days; 216 days @ 25 lbs. [v] hay per day = 5400 lbs hay; 5400 x 40 gal. water = 216,000 gallons; 216,000/490 lbs (retail cuts from a 1200 lb steer) = 440 gallons per pound) 440 gallons of water per pound, bringing it below the range of a pound of irrigated beans.

We see the above calculations as more accurate of the real cost of embodied water than the kinds of numbers put forward on the Water Footprint site. However, they’ve obviously done a lot of work in generating their data, and it is a great starting point from which we created the following list.

California Grown Water-intensive foods:
CAFO beef – 1847 gallons/pound
Walnuts – 1086 gallons/pound
CAFO pork – 717 gallons/pound
Powdered Milk – 569 gallons/pound
CAFO chicken – 518 gallons/pound
Beans – 486 gallons/pound
CAFO eggs – 391 gallons/pound (~68 gallons/egg)
Cheese – 381 gallons/pound
Olives – 361 gallons/pound
Peanuts – 330 gallons/pound
Rice – 130 to 400 gallons/pound
Cotton – 299 gallons/t-shirt
Corn – 146 gallons/pound
Milk – 31 gallons/quart

Since nearly all food production in California requires irrigation that exceeds the natural water cycle’s annual recharge (this equals unsustainable draw-down), the numbers above are likely reflective of the amount of water extraction needed to produce these animal products and plant crops. However, as noted above, the grains used in CAFO systems may come from lands that are dry-farmed, meaning the embodied extracted water is far lower than the numbers above. Of course, the elimination of healthy, natural biological communities still remains.