RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Maybe you've come across the following statistic recently in your reading about the California drought. It apparently takes one gallon of water to grow a single almond. And California grows a lot of almonds, along with many of the fruits and vegetables we eat in this country. So are we making the states drought worse by eating these foods? We brought in NPR's food and farming correspondent Dan Charles to help us sort it out. Hey, Dan.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Happy to do your sorting for you.
MARTIN: Thank you. So let's talk about this. A gallon of water for a single almond? I mean, that's crazy. It seems crazy.
CHARLES: I am here to sooth your guilt, Rachel. There is nothing wrong with eating almonds. You should eat almonds.
MARTIN: (Laughter) Good.
CHARLES: They're good for you. Almonds get a lot of attention because California's farmers have been growing so many of them. They've been a hugely profitable crop, and production has been booming. And so yes, they take a lot of water. But those almonds replaced other crops, which also used a lot of water. And the simple fact is if you're growing any food, you're going to use a huge amount of water. Any crop you grow in California is going to take at least half a million gallons for every acre.
MARTIN: But so is there nothing to this? Are almonds thirstier than other crops, though?
CHARLES: OK, yes, they do take more water than a lot of other crops. Not all crops, but most crops - a lot more than vineyards, more than most vegetable crops. But that's per pound of production or per acre. There's another way to look at this. You could say how much water do they use per unit of value, let's say per dollar of output from that acre. And if you look at it that way, almonds are actually really good. Almonds are so valuable, that if you look at them per drop of water how much value do you create, they're right up there at the top. I should say that there is one real problem with almonds.
MARTIN: I knew it.
CHARLES: And that is they are trees. And trees stay in the ground year after year. And so when you plant an almond tree, you are locked into using that amount of water every year - wet year or dry year. So it's really not sensible for farmers in California to plant all their land in almonds. They need to set aside some of their land for crops where they can just decide year-by-year whether to plant them at all, like tomatoes for instance. So in years like this one when they know they don't have much water to work with, they leave that land fallow and just concentrate all other water on that valuable almond crop.
MARTIN: I mean, but in the reporting of the California draught, we have heard time and again that it's - the agriculture really requires so much water. Are there certain crops, Dan, that California farmers just should stop planting?
CHARLES: Yes. Yeah. Crops where the value does not justify using water on them. They should not be planting very much cotton or rice or hay. And that shift is actually happening. If you're looking for a villain, the villain is probably cheap water. There are farmers that are getting water for cheap, and they do not have much of an incentive to shift their land to the most valuable crops or to conserve water. Now, that is changing. It's changing slowly. It's changing gradually. But cheap water is getting more and more scarce.
MARTIN: So when we get big picture, I mean, is California still the place where the United States should be getting most of its food, or does the drought raise questions about whether or not we should move some of the crops?
CHARLES: We will be relying a little bit less on California in the future. I mean, California is, you know, in terms of water use, it's gone into debt. It has pumped out water from underground and depleted it's underground reservoirs. Those have to be built up. Some acres in California that have been producing food will come out of production in the coming years. And so we will get less food production from California. But most of the acres in California that are producing food, they will still grow food, and we'll be getting our strawberries, our nuts, our vegetables from California for many years to come.
MARTIN: And our almonds.
MARTIN: NPR's Dan Charles. Thanks so much, Dan.
CHARLES: Nice to be here.
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