The severe drought that California and the west is suffering is the worst in more than a hundred years. It’s so bad that in February, President Obama pledged $183 million in federal funds for drought relief programs. Ranchers, who rely on the rains to grow grass on which to pasture their animals, have been especially hard-hit.
As Alexis Robertson of Skyelark Ranch reports in The FruitGuys Almanac, because rainfall has not been sufficient, ranchers have to purchase hay to feed their animals. “Normally we would only be supplementing our animals grazing feed with hay rather than providing 100% of their diet,” says Robertson. “In a drought year, that expensive and time-consuming supplement suddenly becomes the only source of feed.”
Water tensions pit farmers, ranchers, cities, and industries against each other for a share of what this year is a very finite resource. According to Gidon Eshel, a research professor with the Bard College Center for Environmental Policy, “In California, there are bitter rivalries between stakeholders over water. But the truth is that most of the water is going toward animal uses like hay, a lot of which is shipped overseas.”
California Hay Exported to China
Yes, hay, grown in California’s Imperial Valley, which is fed by water rights from the vast Colorado river, is being exported to China.
And because of trade imbalances (we import more Chinese goods to the U.S. than we export U.S. goods to China), empty container ships are looking for cargo to take back to China and charging cut-rate shipping prices. According to Bloomberg News, this makes it cheaper to ship hay to China than within the United States. China’s growing demand for meat and scarce pasturage means that the demand for hay to feed livestock is strong. In 2012, 13 percent of hay grown in Western states was exported.
Because hay is a water intensive crop, some have likened its export to exporting water to China, like this 2012 op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. But Daniel H. Putnam, a member of the Board of Directors for the California Alfalfa and Forage Association, argues that California sends a lot of crops overseas, from almonds and apples to wheat and wine. He wonders why hay is being singled out for criticism as an export. In a February 2, 2014 post to Alfalfa and Forage News, he notes “…the focus on alfalfa is primarily due to a gut feeling (“utter disbelief”) or lack of appreciation of hay, rather than a careful analysis of the quantities of water, nor the economic impacts involved.”
The Meat of the Matter
Perhaps the gut reaction against shipping hay overseas stems from the fact that wine, apples, almonds, and wheat are generally exported for human consumption, while alfalfa hay will be fed to animals.
Raising livestock is extremely resource-intensive. It takes more than 10 times the amount of water to produce a pound of beef as it does a pound of wheat. Gidon Esher says that it takes a hundred times more water to produce a calorie of beef as it does to produce a calorie of lentils. He notes that many people in the U.S. are getting 35 percent of our calories from animal sources, and that is just not sustainable. “Keep your eye on the ball,” he notes, “it’s time to shift our agriculture from producing food for animals to producing food for people.”
Not ready to go 100-percent vegetarian yet? Farm Animal Rights Movement’s “Meatout Mondays” campaign suggests giving up meat and other animal products once a week, while The New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman has had personal success combating health issues by making a strict rule for himself to eat only vegan foods until 6 PM.
Miriam Wolf is a Portland-based wellness coach and writer, and is the editor of The FruitGuys Almanac Newsletter.