Mark Arax on Fresh Air.

Mark Arax wrote the very excellent King of California; everything I’ve read of his is detailed and thoughtful and great.  Transcript of the interview here.

His summary of the almond debate, my emphasis in bold:

ARAX: Well, as these tribes – I call them tribes – the tribes of the north of California, the middle of California and the south of California start arguing, they start reducing it to kind of ridiculous little symbols [ed: hey, that’s me!]. And it used to be the farmers against the Delta smelt fish. And now it’s the urbanite against the almond. And you have to look at it from the standpoint of the almond grower. Many almond growers used to grow cotton. And cotton is a crop that can be grown anywhere in the United States. And it’s a crop that uses a good deal more water than the almond does. And so they evolve and decided that we were going to plant nuts. Nuts can only be grown really in California. It’s a high-value crop. And they’ve planted the hell out of them. I mean, right in the midst of drought here – I drive up and down the Valley, and they’re planting tens of thousands of more acres of almonds and pistachios. So the almond has become – I mean, this is all about whose draw of water is more righteous than the other. And so the almond farmer got thrown under the bus pretty quickly. And it is true that the almond uses about 10 percent of the developed water in California. There are a million acres of nuts now. This has gone up, you know, threefold in a very short period of time. So the almond farmer’s going to tell you that I’m using my ground for something that’s very profitable. It’s a very efficient deliverer of protein. And if you look at it that way, it has a much better water footprint than beef or soybeans or certainly alfalfa. So this is what’s happening. It’s almost a zero-sum game. And everybody has to now argue its commodity and why its draw of water, you know, is maybe not sustainable but justifiable.

This makes me wish intensely for explicit decision criteria. Righteous by what standards? I’m busy reducing types of water use to ridiculous little symbols, but even I know that people’s preferences depend on their priorities. I wish people expressed those more clearly, from the lofty to the self-serving. With those out on the table, we would stop hearing stupid shit like “stop demonizing almonds”. I am not demonizing almonds themselves. I recognize that they are an inert and tasty nut. But a million acres of them in California violates some of my priors, such as:

  • It isn’t important to me to plant every available acre in California; it is important to me to reduce the rate of aquifer overdraft.
  •  Californian agriculture should be primarily market crops and I don’t care whether Californian agriculture feeds the rest of the world. I care intensely that it is always available to feed Californians.
  •  I am more-or-less a vegetarian non-drinker, so I don’t actually have a dog in this fight. But I sense that cheap meat and dairy and wine are more culturally important than almonds, which are a taste acquired in the past 15 years.
  • I would rather have the knowledge that we have living rivers than the knowledge that we are the primary almond producing region in the world.  (I sometimes change my mind about that right after my dog rolls in dead salmon along the American River.)

You can deduce all these from my usual arguments.  But I have to deduce the arguments for a million fucking acres of almonds and I can’t tell if I am right.

  • Planting almonds reflects some sort of farmer autonomy that is inherently valuable?  I deduce this one from cries that an almond moratorium is “un-American”.
  • If planting that many almonds is the result of “the free market”, that alone validates it as the best outcome?
  • I like almonds and want them cheap.
  • Almonds draw monetary wealth into the farming economy that is more important that the externalities? Or that money goes to more important people than the people who are damaged?

It get very tiring to argue righteousness when I have to extrapolate, provide both sides of ‘righteous by what lights?’ and then counter all the possible opposing beliefs I can come up with.  I wish people were more explicit and precise about their underlying beliefs on this stuff so we could have the real conversations.


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5 responses to “Mark Arax on Fresh Air.

  1. Steve Bloom

    Arax is so long-winded that I think interviewers may forget where he started by the time he gets to his conclusion, a problem compounded by all those very short sentences. Gross probably doesn’t know the subject well enough to have noticed the gaps in his reasoning through the haze.

    The bottom lines here are the groundwater, the habitat and food for California. I’m a vegan and would be just as happy to see the alfalfa and cows go away, although like you I understand most won’t agree with that. But unlike almonds, at least dairy has some ability to adjust to a drought by importing more feed (prices go up, production goes down, all happy more or less — unless you’re a cow or veal calf, or familiar with the health consequences of ingesting too much dairy, but those are other topics).

    I do think California has a degree of responsibility to export food to places with less salubrious climates, but there’s a balance to be struck here that still allows for plenty of that. I’m even OK with the market determining the nature of the exports.

  2. Phil Isenberg


    Vlad the Impalier is a vegetarian! Are there no standards left?

    Phil Isenberg

  3. David Brower

    Interesting discussion, particularly regarding the exercise of unfettered property rights vs. injury to other water users and the environment. I tend to think that value balancing must be considered at the local scale relative to specific supplies. For example, there are in fact areas using 80-90+% of all surface water for agriculture, but add in groundwater usage and it may be considered as 160% of the long-term supply – that train wreck is inevitable regardless of policy implementation. Other areas may have more abundant surface supply, or groundwater replenished by seepage from the Sacramento River, which once diminished is less capable of supplying its usual and expected uses. . .

  4. dzetland

    I agree that it’s good to secure water for environment, etc., but your distaste of almonds is the same as someone else’s distaste of tomatoes. Once you see that everyone has an opinion THAT’S EQUALLY VALID, then prices (for crops) end up deciding it. That’s why almonds are fine.

    Now go back to the starting caveat: securing water for other, social uses. That’s how you square your circle (markets plus sustainable)

  5. onthepublicrecord

    To be clear, I myself like to eat almonds. My distaste for their expansion in California comes from other sources. They cause demand hardening; they consume local water and cause local inconvenience but provide enjoyment to other people far away; some of the largest new orchards are being planted by already rich people; I continue to think that people didn’t have an inherent need for almonds before some excellent almond marketing starting in the mid-nineties.

    Back in the old days, I never complained about the old-school orchards near Chico. My reasons aren’t quite as shallow as my personal tastes in food.

    I also think that if some type of crop is going away as gw gets below reach, almonds are the most frivolous. I believe people are much more intensely attached to cheap meat or wine than almonds.