What we Waste When we Waste Food: Water Part 1

Water is something most of us probably take for granted - we turn on the tap, the shower, the hose, and out it flows. The agricultural industry does not have this luxury. This is the second installment of our series focusing on inputs that are wasted when food is - and we have broken down this one even further to cover water waste along the agricultural supply chain and farming communities who lack access to clean drinking water. Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of this piece, which will cover the urgency of protecting our water sources for the future of the environment and agriculture. 

In their work, farmers contend with qualificatory and waste-inducing water policies, including how and from where they can use it. There are two different types of water rights: riparian and appropriative. A riparian water right is the older of the two classifications and is based on the relationship between water and land: if a piece of land has a body of water running through it or adjacent to it, the property owner is entitled to “make reasonable use” of that water. The right to that water can usually only be sold and transferred with the sale of the property and one usually can not lose a riparian right due to lack of use. Appropriative water rights are a relatively newer way to parcel water and are not based on the relationship between land and water. Rather, an appropriative water right is an “[entitlement] to a specific amount of water, for a specified use, at a specific location with a definite date of priority”. An appropriative water right can be lost if the right-holder is not making use of their allotted water. Some states, including California, Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Washington have a hybrid system, meaning riparian rights must be claimed by a certain date, and otherwise can be converted into appropriative rights, to be given to someone else for beneficial use. 

These rights are the most basic classifications for any legislation relating to water and who is allowed to access it. To give an idea of how much water is wasted when we waste our food, let’s begin first with how much water is wasted throughout the agricultural process, both for the actual process of production as well as for other reasons. Because any kind of law classified as an appropriative water right is based on use, these rights can be taken away and reallocated. We spoke with Nina Gordon-Kirsch, an independent contractor most easily described as a Water Protector, who argues that this kind of policy needs to be reassessed, as it can lead farmers who don’t want to risk losing their water source to run their sprinklers with the sole purpose of maintaining their claim on the water for the coming years – they are running water not to nourish their crop but to protect the ability to do so in a dryer year. According to the National Resources Defense Council, there are over 5,000 farms in California that receive their water for irrigation based on a rigid schedule rather than based on when they actually need it. This also means they may not be receiving it when they actually do need it to do their work and grow their crops to feed us all. That is to say that it seems difficult and unfair to blame small and medium sized farms for using water when they don’t need it - they are working within a flawed system and need to be able to produce. 

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With the current water policies in place, agriculture utilizes 70% of the world’s fresh water, some of which, as illustrated above, is not even being used for the actual process of farming, but rather simply to maintain one’s stake in their allocated water quantity. In other words, some of this water is being wasted instead of being applied for a specific and beneficial use. We should revere anything that is actually produced with water and consider the importance of reshaping our legislation to allocate water rights in a vastly more efficient manner. Farmers who reside outside the economic giant that is Big Ag have to work around a system that prioritizes schedules of water use that don’t work when practically applied to farming, all the while struggling to maintain economic viability. Beyond the difficulty of contending with the unpredictability of wet and dry years, farmers are going to begin facing “increasing competition from non-agricultural users due to rising urban population density and water demands from the energy and industry sectors”. The OECD recommends that legislators “remove policies that support excessive use of water and polluting activities”, particularly in the US, as we are the largest user of groundwater for agricultural purposes of all OECD countries.

We will share more next week about environmentalists and their serious concerns surrounding biodiversity loss due to many of our rivers having 30% or less of their flow because of the massive amounts of water used for agriculture. Water rights are obviously an environmental issue - but they are also a social one. While farmers grow our food and survive under the pressure of policies that don’t always capture the nuances of what it means to grow something from the earth, many of them are also without access to clean drinking water themselves. There are over one million people in California who are exposed to unsafe water contaminated by arsenic and fertilizer runoff. The heart of the problem lies in the heart of California - the Central and Salinas Valleys - the producers of so much of our nation’s food. Gordon-Kirsch emphasized several times in our conversation the grave injustice of this, that those who feed the rest of us can’t turn on the sink in their kitchen to rehydrate with a glass of water. The New York Times interviewed a woman named Martha Sanchez - both she and her husband pick oranges and cherries for a living - and they spend more than $50 a month on unclean and unsafe tap water. They receive five five-gallon jugs a month every two weeks from the State Water Resources Control Board, but Sanchez always has to pay out of pocket for an additional four gallons. 

There is more to this grim story of water waste - more than the injustice of farmers both fighting for better water rights for their livelihood as well as for their own personal survival and well-being, more than the notion that water ends up being wasted, used for nothing, misappropriated and misallocated. Beyond all of those dire issues, beyond the water that is wasted in agriculture along the supply chain, 21% of all fresh water is consumed by perfectly good food going to waste. Our friends at ReFed, a food waste think tank, argue that the way to conserve water in the agricultural sector is to create solutions that avoid using water to produce food that ends up wasted. They estimate that solutions such as Donation Matching Software, Donation Liability Education, Donation Transportation, and Waste Tracking & Analytics have the potential to save a combined 469 billion gallons of water each year. What ReFed’s research means for all of us in its simplest terms is to waste less food, whether that be in our shopping habits, our restaurant dining habits, or what we do with the food at our office at the end of a meal – to avoid using water on food that will be wasted, we need to work hard to make sure that the food is consumed and enjoyed.