If you are very good, we’ll send you some oranges for Christmas.

I see this quote everywhere; today’s example is from here.

California’s drought is especially worrisome because the state produces about one-half of the country’s fruits, vegetables and nuts. It is the No.1 agricultural state in the U.S.

The valuable information that never accompanies this quote is: how much of California’s irrigated acreage does it take to produce half the country’s truck crops? How much acreage would have to be fallowed in drought before any of those fruit, vegetables and nuts are lost to U.S. consumers?

Here are some tables from U.C. Davis’s Agricultural Issues Center that give a rough idea. (For the rest of what I put here, I’ll concede rounding and back-of-the-envelope estimates. If I am wrong by five or ten percent, it’ll still give us a sense of proportion.) This is 2011 data. Straight off the top, about 15% of California’s agricultural produce is shipped to the rest of the world. (http://giannini.ucop.edu/CalAgBook/Chap3.pdf, pg 62, says 16% to 19% in the 90’s). But Table 1 says 14%. Let’s say 15% so the math is easy. There are roughly 9 million irrigated acres in CA.

9m acres * 0.15 = 1,350,000 acres of production exported

If more than a million irrigated acres went out of production, the U.S. could still have all of the fruits, vegetables and nuts it now consumes.

If we start looking at different crops, I find the drought less and less worrisome. Back to Table 1, which says that 0.64 of all almonds produced go to overseas markets.

800,000 acres of almonds * 0.64 = 512,000 acres of almonds exported.

If 500,000 acres of almonds went out of production, the ag sector would lose quite a bit of money. But the U.S. would lose not a single almond that it currently eats. Table 3 shows you where those almonds go. A third of them go to Europe. I am sure that if California could not provide Europe with almonds, Spain, Turkey and Iran would be delighted to help them out. I am also sure that if Europe could consume no almonds at all, it would not be the Siege of Leningrad. People have gone without almonds for their entire lives and still found meaning in their existence.

Table 1 says that half of pistachios and walnuts are sent overseas (55%); Table 3 says they go to Europe and China. Combined acreage of pistachios (250,000 acres) and walnuts (about 250,000) is 500,000 acres. We could lose half of that (back down to 250,000 acres) without endangering the U.S. supply.

Let’s do grapes! 850,000 acres of grapes; 0.27 exported out of the country (Table 1), one third of those to Canada (Table 3).

850,000 acres of grapes * 0.27 = approx 230,000 acres of grape exported.
230,000 acres of grapes * 3 af/acre = little more than 0.6MAF.

It would not go down in the annals of human tragedies if Canadians got no more Californian wines. This would not give me a single second’s worry about food security.

A third of dried beans grown in California and half of the rice grown in California are exported. You know what? I think that’s great! Those are important food staples that provide direct protein and calories to humans. I am not anti-everything ag. But if we are growing 750,000 acres of nuts for the rest of the world, then we’re shipping 2.25MAF/year of water away in the form of pleasant snacks. Fuck that.

I am the most parochial person you know, and were it up to me, I wouldn’t be providing lettuce to places east of the Sierras either. Y’all have the entire Great Plains to work with; I am sure you could figure something out if California decided we’d rather have our ecosystems than send you cheap blueberries. I understand that my views are in the minority. But rough estimates are enough to convey that irrigated acreage in California (9 million acres) has perhaps 1.5 million to 2 million acres of slack before important food crops for human consumption in the U.S. are threatened.

ADDED: For perspective, the regulars at UC Davis say:

Still, statewide overdraft is estimated diversely to average between 500,000 acre-feet a year to more than 1.5 million acre-feet a year

We send more water embedded in almonds, walnuts and pistachios overseas than we overdraft from the San Joaquin Valley aquifers every year.


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13 responses to “If you are very good, we’ll send you some oranges for Christmas.

  1. onthepublicrecord

    I feel nearly certain I’ve made that oranges/Christmas joke before. But a search doesn’t turn it up, so we’ll pretend it is still funny.

  2. Emily, you might also look in detail at the Pacific Institute’s Water Footprint report, which tracks in great detail where our water goes (and what we also IMPORT in the form of goods and services). Turns out we are a net IMPORTER of water (virtual water). http://pacinst.org/publication/assessment-of-californias-water-footprint/

    • onthepublicrecord

      When I last saw the Water Footprint, it didn’t have Figure 14, page 23. That’s very helpful. Good to know that it is the meat and grains that are the primary sources of embedded water in CAs imported food supply (~19MAF/year). That’s about 6 million acres worth of water. A lot.

  3. ScottB

    Hmm, I hate to use “money” as a metric for anything (though it can be useful for comparing apples to, say, oranges), but if we’re going to export something, shouldn’t it be something that returns a _lot_ of money to us, so it can be used to buy more expensive water, or taxed to pay for infrastructure development? Without knowing anything else about it, that would make me more willing to export high-revenue stuff like nuts rather than low-revenue stuff like dried beans. Does that factor in somewhere?? I’m sensitive to earlier comments about nut trees building in some serious annual water requirements vs. beans which are annuals. But I still think revenue weighs in somewhere…

    • onthepublicrecord

      Depends on what your interest is. Is it having sales support farmers (and their communities)? Is it having the market dictate the use of water? Is it being sure food supplies are secure for California, the U.S. the world? Luxury food supplies or staple calories? Is it prioritizing environmental water while still producing food staples?

      There are choices in there and we could make them. But vague worry that drought threatens our daily calories isn’t accurate.

  4. ScottB

    Love the emphasis on ‘what are your goals’. Thanks for the clarity that this does not threaten our daily calories. Short answers to indicate my biases? Sure. And I’d love to hear yours.
    I’d rather have sales support farmers (and their communities) than taxes.
    I’d prefer the market indicate how farmers ought to spend their limited resources, rather than a 5 year plan (but I’m forcefully muttering the phrase ‘tragedy of the commons’ the entire time).
    Food security is a rather vague phrase and I’d need to hear much _much_ more about it before I could sign on.
    I believe that trade makes us all richer, and there’s a significant accumulation of data to indicate that. That means I don’t need us to make enough milk and grains to feed California if instead I can make grapes and trade for milk and grains.


  5. Dave W.

    The problem I see with this analysis is that you seem to be assuming that exports are what happens after domestic demand is satisfied. In the absence of government export restrictions, I expect whatever reduced supply there is to go to the highest bidder, foreign or domestic. While it may be true that shipping costs will give the domestic bidder an advantage, it’s not clear to me that the highest bidder will automatically be domestic, and even so, we can at least expect that the price will go up over what it is now (perhaps by a lot) due to reduced supply.

    Now it’s possible that the federal government might be willing to impose export controls and/or price controls in response to a genuine food security emergency. I have my doubts about whether the current Congress is at all likely to do so. And even if they did, that would have further implications for the overall economy (export growth being one of the main ways to try and grow the economy out of a recession). In short, I think it’s complicated, and I don’t think I can say with any confidence that Californians won’t be affected by cutbacks in supply.

  6. It’s nice to put some context on fear mongering (I have asked many people about CA ag’s contribution to the economy. Most guess 20+%; they are amazed to hear 4%), but I agree with others that markets would determine crops and consumption locations. That’s no sin, as there’s no point of, e.g., saving all the iphones for Californians (or Chinese). But I recognize (or hope) that you goal is just to point out that the “die of hunger” rhetoric is baseless…

  7. Francis

    On a somewhat related note, various sources say that as much as 40% of the food grown in the US is wasted.

  8. onthepublicrecord

    Yep. Food waste is another area of slack. If things were dire, we could look there.

  9. onthepublicrecord

    The problem I see with this analysis is that you seem to be assuming that exports are what happens after domestic demand is satisfied. In the absence of government export restrictions, I expect whatever reduced supply there is to go to the highest bidder, foreign or domestic.

    No, I agree with you that your description is how the world works now, and if there is are shortages compared to current supply, prices will go up and domestic eater will be hit too.

    But I think that in a world where we genuinely need to be concerned about the production of sufficient calories, there is a whole lot that could be changed. Until we’re serious about that, I don’t want to hear vaguely worrisome stuff in the paper about the U.S. fruits and veggies.

  10. Dave W.

    I’m just not super-confident that the same Congress that thought it was a good idea to cut SNAP funding in the face of persistent long-term unemployment would, in the face of genuine shortages, come up with a plan that is much better than “let the poor starve, and the middle-class fight over the scraps.” I’d like to think that I’m wrong about that, that humanitarian and human impulses would rule the day before we start getting television images of starving kids on the streets. And it may well be so. But I haven’t been seeing a lot of empathy for the poor from the R side of the aisle over the last few years. Hopefully, we won’t have to find out.

  11. Thanks Peter for the above comment. I also commend the Pacific Institute’s Water Footprint report http://pacinst.org/publication/assessment-of-californias-water-footprint/
    and leave this remark purely because the comment might leave the impression that I write this blog. I do not. Unlike OTPR’s author, who appears to work in a sensitive bureaucratic capacity, I have no reasonable cause for anonymity and therefore, for better or worse, always sign my work. To anyone who might have drawn the wrong conclusion, please know that it’s likely that Peter addressed the comment to me because of Tweets and Facebook posts directing water watchers to OTPR, whose posts I would have be required reading expressly because they are so well informed and excite so much equally informed comment. -Emily Green