California is suffering an epic drought. It’s not the worst drought the state has ever had, but it’s certainly the worst drought the state has ever had while housing tens of millions of residents and containing a significant fraction of U.S. agricultural production. And there’s some suggestion that this may be the new normal — not just because of global warming, as you’ve probably already read, but also because California’s natural condition is "extra dry." An expert interviewed by Tom Philpott of Mother Jones says that the 20th century, which saw California’s rise as an agricultural powerhouse, was an unusually wet period for the state. Merely reverting to "normal" would mean having about 15 percent less water — and the state is still growing.
That does not mean that California will become an uninhabited desert, scattered with wind-scoured ruins providing a silent and reproachful testimony to Man’s hubris. California has enough water to support quite a lot of population growth — if it cuts out a lot of that agriculture. It may even be able to support most of the agriculture — if people start leaving. The problem is, it may not be able to manage both unless the rains return or it finds some clever way to reclaim low-cost potable water from the sea.
In a worst-case scenario, my money is on agriculture losing out; its lobbyists are motivated, but they’re simply outnumbered by all the city dwellers. So it’s worth contemplating what a dramatic scale-back in California’s agricultural production would do to California — and the rest of us.
Every time I visit California, I’m struck anew by its amazing food. Part of its quality is due to the sheer number of immigrants it has and the sheer number of restaurants at which they start to sell their native cuisine. But to my mind, an even more important factor is simply the year-round availability of high-quality local ingredients, especially the produce. There’s a reason the locavore movement started on the West Coast — and has mostly stayed there, in its more orthodox forms. I know a few people on the East Coast who decided to go locavore, and their commitment lasted, on average, less than one month after the farmers’ market closed in the fall. It’s easier to give up chocolate than to commit to a seven-month period during which you subsist on home canned vegetables, fruits preserved in sugar and a handful of root vegetables.
If California’s agriculture has to scale back, the first and most obvious effect is that the quality of food would decline to something closer to, though still at least somewhat better than, what you get in a major urban area in the Mid-Atlantic states. The second and almost as obvious effect would be on the rest of us: Much of the produce in your supermarket would become dramatically more expensive, especially in the winter. The Midwest could basically take over the job in the summer, and imports from South America could probably make up some of the remaining difference, but most of us would be relying a lot more on frozen fruit and vegetables, and a lot less on fresh.
That’s not all bad — I actually prefer frozen fruit for cooking, because it’s picked and frozen ripe, rather than picked green and rotten by the time it hits store shelves. But it would be a massive change in how many of us cook. It would also widen the divide between how the upper middle class and beyond eat, and how the rest of the country does.
Of course, I hope it doesn’t come to that; I hope that wise water management and greater snowfall in the Sierras can save our fresh produce for many decades to come. But just in case, it wouldn’t hurt to find some recipes that use frozen vegetables.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy.