Summer weekends find me at San Francisco farmers’ markets, buying up as much local stone fruit as I can carry. The peaches, plums, and cherries are burstingly delicious. They are also, it turns out, terribly thirsty crops. California’s historic drought has brought renewed attention to the water-suckingness of beef and almonds, and deservedly so. But look, about half the vegetables and three-quarters of the fruit grown in the US comes from California. So the question is, if you want to be environmentally sensitive and exert a bit of business pressure on water-users, what should you be eating? What’s the most drought-friendly part of the produce aisle?
To figure that out, we analyzed data produced by M.M. Mekonnen and A.Y. Hoekstra at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, showing the water required to grow crops around the world. We then ranked the crops by water usage and organized them by season.
The result: the WIRED Guide to California Produce.
It’s not all bad news: Go ahead and toss that salad! Er. Rather, feel free to throw lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, spinach, and yes, kale into your shopping cart—they all fare well in our analysis. For your fruit plate, you’re safe with strawberries, grapefruit, and cantaloupe. But when you start to reach for the avocados, asparagus, and cherries, you’re getting into more dangerous territory. They are the produce aisle’s biggest water hogs.
Oh, and speaking of hogs. Yes: Compared with animals like pigs and cows, fruits and vegetables are a cactus. As the Los Angeles Times reported, raising animals for human consumption requires an enormous amount of water; producing a pound of bacon, for example, requires eight times more water than a pound of asparagus. The animals don’t drink it; it’s because of the huge amounts of water required to grow the plants they eat. Gizmodo’s Alissa Walker smartly notes that one of agriculture’s biggest drought offenders is alfalfa, grown as animal feed and then exported.
Clearly fruits and vegetables aren’t the bad actors in the drought. Drop for drop you are better off eating just about any kind of produce instead of a steak, a ham, or (animal proteins’ worst offender) cow’s tongue. Another caveat, while we’re on the subject: Our data doesn’t consider foods’ nutritional properties, a considerable X factor. You could imagine, for example, that a water-intensive food that was also high-calorie and highly nutritious might be worth it.
But how do I know, you might be asking, if this artichoke (or whatever) was grown in California? Well, it pretty much was: 99 percent of the nation’s crop is grown here. Other produce that you can be pretty certain came from the Golden State includes garlic, plums, figs, broccoli, grapes, lettuce, celery, strawberries, lemons, and nectarines (ouch). California’s responsible for more than 90 percent of the United States’ production of those foods.
Now, about the nuts: Everyone’s tsk-tsking about California’s enormous almond crop. And it’s true. They suck up a lot of water. But if you want to hate on nuts, walnuts are equally thirsty, and the nation’s domestic supply comes almost entirely from California. Consider instead the pistachio: pretty, nutritious, and way less thirsty.