Much of the food-related coverage of California’s drought crisis has focused on identifying which crops are the biggest drains on the water supply — almonds, for example, have felt the brunt of criticism, as well as grains like alfalfa that are used to feed livestock. It’s true that California produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds, at a cost of one gallon of water per tiny nut. But the utility of telling people to stop eating almonds at a point when the drought is in its fourth year and has reached a critical point of severity is unclear. This is why it’s refreshing to read a thoughtful take, via New York Times reporter Kim Severson, on how California’s drought is impacting agriculture and cooking at various levels.
The drought has highlighted the problematic nature of California’s almond- and beef-heavy agricultural system. As a result, the state government is changing what people can grow and eat. Severson looks at how recently imposed and unprecedented water-use restrictions are impacting agricultural and culinary life, from a cookbook author to chefs to small-scale fruit growers to campus dining services. Cherries, strawberries, peaches and basil have all had their growing seasons altered, and even the staple grain rice will be reduced sharply, with plantings going down by as much as 30 percent, according to the California Rice Commission. “Farmers, who in June were handed sharp new limits on water use, have to decide which crops they aren’t going to grow,” Severson writes.
But while these early harvests, price hikes and shortages are certainly worrisome, it is interesting to note how the drought is inspiring innovation and experimentation in methods of growing and preparing food, which is also impacting how it tastes. Severson reports that “cheese makers who rely on milk from animals used to eating lush grass have had to contend with radically different flavors in the milk.” One home gardener has for the first time in years decided not to plant her heirloom tomatoes, and meanwhile she is watering her potted flowers with the liquid leftover from boiling artichokes for dinner (one might, however, argue that there’s more utility in the tomatoes than the flowers). Cookbook author Andrea Nguyen is highlighted in Severson’s article for her attempts to make a less water-based pho soup, which doesn’t simmer as long — and the result is that the taste isn’t “quite the same.”
The drought is forcing larger-scale operations to examine how they can be more efficient. The forward-thinking dining-services company BAMCO, which operates cafés in museums, universities and the like across the country, is researching the use of hydroponic, solar-powered gardens, and they have begun using so-called “imperfect vegetables that farmers might otherwise plow under.” Also, one of their clients has chosen to have beef-free meals one day per week.
Will the impact of these efforts add up to nothing more than a “drop in the bucket,” as environmental lawyer and author (and wife to rancher Bill Nyman) Nicolette Hahn Niman tells Severson? Maybe, but it’s noteworthy that the California water crisis is generating a statewide rethinking of how food is grown and consumed. It’s the kind of creativity we should have always had within our food system, rather than waiting until crisis mode to implement.
Let’s hope that these strategies, born out of need, might shed light on the ways that many agricultural producers have already been working within a more conscious framework, such as David Masumoto, an organic stone fruit farmer mentioned in Severson’s article. For a long time, Masumoto struggled to sell their “petite Gold Dust peaches, which they intentionally grew using as little water as possible,” because people wanted the big, fat peaches. Maybe, if people can learn to appreciate the look and flavor of food that’s grown sustainably, which often lacks the airbrushed uniformity of conventionally produced edibles, we might find ourselves in a much better position in a few decades. And perhaps what’s on our table will not only have arrived there in an ecologically sound way — it might even taste better in surprising ways.