Water for Food Production

                                       Almond trees blooming in the Capay Valley, Northern California

In my last chapter I gave an example of how water is used in a tomato cannery. This time, let's look at the bigger picture how water relates to food production, worldwide.

According to FAO data for 2015, almost 800 million people globally are undernourished. Insufficient daily calories and proteins means that they go to bed hungry. And this is without counting those who are not necessarily falling short in terms of the quantity of food but are not being adequately fed in terms of the quality of food. I know, these numbers are estimates, difficult to measure. We should, therefore congratulate FAO who developed methods for the measurement and is making sure this issue does not completely disappear from political agendas. 220 million of the undernourished people live in Sub-Saharan Africa, this is more than 23% of its total population.                                                                                                                                  (Food and water security Nov 26, 2015  Peter Brabeck-Letmathe   Chairman of the Board at Nestlé S.A.)

Brabeck-Letmathe goes on and states that: The inexcusable fact is that today the world is producing more than enough basic food to feed everybody.

There is a disproportionate distribution of food in today’s world. He goes on and gives some reasons; one of the main ones being:

Mainly as a result of the high water requirements to produce our food, we are already withdrawing 20% more water than what is sustainably available (Defined as natural renewal minus needs for environmental flows in specific watersheds) – mostly at the expense of nature. By 2030, if there is no change in the way we manage water, withdrawals will exceed sustainable supply by more than 60%. In 30% of the main cereal-producing regions of the world, water withdrawals will be even twice as high as sustainable supply. The buffers we have - underground aquifers and lakes - are quickly drying up. The long and short of it is that within some 15 years a massive food production crisis with massive food shortfalls is highly probable. 

Professor Arjen Y. Hoekstra, Twente Water Centre, University of Twente, the Netherlands, writes:
Water management is no longer an issue restricted to indi­vidual countries or river basins. Even a continental approach is not sufficient. The water footprint of Europe – the total volume of water used for producing all commodities con­sumed by European citizens – has been significantly externa­lized to other parts of the world. Europe is for example a large importer of sugar and cotton, two of the most thirsty crops. Coffee is imported from countries such as Colombia, soybean from Brazil, and rice from Thailand. European consumption strongly relies on water resources available outside Europe. How is Europe going to secure its future water supply? China and India are still largely water self­-sufficient, but with rising food demand and growing water scarcity within these two major developing countries, one will have to expect a larger demand for food imports and thus external water demand. Water is increasingly becoming a global resource.

Although in many countries most of the food still originates from the country itself, substantial volumes of food and feed are internationally traded. As a result, all countries import and export water in virtual form, i.e. in the form of agricultural commodities.

A good example closer to California is the export of almonds, mainly to China:                                                                      From 2012 to 2013, China imported more than 94,428 tons of almonds from California, making it the largest export market destination for California almonds for the fourth year in a row, according to the Almond Board of California. Export volume of almonds from the US to China increased from 10,000 tons in 2002 to 100,000 tons in 2010, with shipments doubling in the past six years. 
Waycott said he didn't expect future almond sales in China to grow as quickly as they have over the last five years, but the long-term opportunity for growth in China was still very significant.  "From the 94,428 tons today, we could easily be doubling or tripling that in the years to come. We see a very promising future in China," he added.      By Yu Wei in San Francisco (China Daily USA) 

As those of you in California are aware, the almond crop is growing exponentially, in leaps and bounds! More and more almond orchards are planted. California prides itself on the great crop and export, but has anyone looked at it from a “virtual water export” point of view as described by Professor Hoekstra?

The virtual­ water concept was introduced by Tony Allan when he studied the possibility of importing virtual water (as opposed to real water) as a partial solution to problems of water scarcity in the Middle East. Allan elaborated the idea of using virtual ­water import (coming along with food imports) as a tool to release the pressure on scarcely available domestic water resources. Virtual­ water import thus becomes an alternative water source, alongside endogenous water sources.
(Food and water security Nov 26, 2015  Peter Brabeck-Letmathe)

The water footprint of a product (a commodity, good or service) is the volume of fresh water used to produce the product, measured at the place where the product was actually produced. It refers to the sum of the water used in the various steps of the production chain. The ’water footprint’ of a product is the same as what at other times is called  its  ’virtual  water  content’
Table  1  shows  the water footprint for a number of common food items:



So, with California’s drought situation, should almond orchards be increased to supply China and India?


Water Properties Used to make Tomato Paste

Water has so many properties and functions which we take for granted. Ben thought of using a tomato cannery as an example to look at all the different ways water is used in the process.

Tomatoes are harvested into two big gondolas, one on each trailer. This goes back to the late sixties before tomatoes ever could be harvested into larger containers than a crate without getting all crushed. Especially the University of California - Davis (UCD) was very involved with developing varieties that would provide firmer fruit and could be harvested all at one time, instead of the time-proven method of being harvested in stages. Neither could they be plants that needed to be trellised. Ben got into the industry in 1969. By then Jack Hanna was very well known at the University and in the industry. California grows about 95% of canning tomatoes, so his research and development of varieties were mostly geared for California. New harvesters had to be developed which also was heavily researched by the UCD mechanical department. 

Ben’s father and mother came over that summer of 1969, so Ben took his dad to the fields. Being an avid photographer, his dad had his film camera with him. Yamamoto, one of the farmers Ben had contracted with, was suspicious and asked who this person was, filming during the harvest. Mechanical harvesters were still in the development stages, so it might well have been a competitor trying to take pictures of Yamamoto’s harvester. Ben assured Yamamoto that it was his father who wanted to take pictures to show in Holland. At that time tomatoes were harvested into bins which were then loaded onto a flatbed, two rows by 6 bins long.

In the 1980’s, canning-tomato varieties had been further developed and gondolas were tied onto a flatbed and pulled alongside the harvester. There were about 5-6 people on each side of the harvester, to take out green , over-ripe, and blemished, tomatoes, along with any vines that came up with the tomatoes. A truck towed two of those trailers to the cannery where they are staged. The cannery has a few tractors to take the trailers along a channel filled with water. The water is circulated in that channel, or flume. The trailers are pulled onto a tilted pad. They have a little gate on either side, which is opened and a hose of water is used to flush out the tomatoes into the flume. 

  • Water carries the tomatoes toward an elevator, where they are elevated to the next level and dropped in the second flume.
  • Tomatoes are rinsed again in that second flume. they then come onto the next elevator which drops them on a sorting belt where sorters take out any foreign material, like stems, branches, blemished tomatoes missed in the harvester, and even an occasional field-mouse scurrying its way through. After that the tomatoes fall into a crusher to make juice for further processing.
Once the tomatoes are crushed, pectin breakdown sets in, what we want to avoid because the pectin is important to maintain thickness of puree and tomato paste. Especially for puree it is very important to maintain a thick consistency, because that is how quality is measured. To avoid the breakdown, crushed tomato needs to be heated right away. The crushed tomato falls into a tank from which the juice is circulated through tubes surrounded by steam. Where doe the steam come from?
  • Water is used to make steam. The cannery has a set of boilers where steam is created from water. Water is pumped through tubes surrounded by burners, lit by gas or oil. The water gets super hot and turns into steam which is then piped to wherever it is needed; “hot-breaks”, as the tanks are called for the crushed fruit, is one of those places.
Tomatoes consist for 95% out of water. To make tomato puree and paste, the 5% solids of a tomato is concentrated to 12.5% or 24% solids. 
  • Water is evaporated. This can be done several ways. You can crush tomatoes, then let them cook on a stove until enough water is evaporated in the form of steam. This takes a lot of time and reduces the quality of the puree or paste dramatically, plus the color will get very dark. Professionally it is done under vacuum. That way water will evaporate at a much lower temperature. To create a vacuum, steam is used to "suck out" air from a vessel and the tomato mass will evaporate water at a much lower temperature.

The tomato paste is sterile enough, but the can it is put in, is not. The paste would soon spoil. 

  • Water, in the form of steam will sterilize the can and tomato paste. When the paste is put into the can and sealed, the can passes through a sterilizer which consists of a wide slow-moving metal chain belt going through a box with steam injection. The heat creates a vacuum in the can, so a can of tomato paste has a shelf life of more than a year.

                                        CAN YOU THINK OF MORE WAYS WATER IS USED?



They know who they are

Roland visited his brother, Ben, in California. Roland was making this an “American” trip, in which he included several locations. His first was with Ben and his family. Ben lived just west of Sacramento, and planned a camping trip with his brother to see some sights. He also took the little Sunfish sailboat along, on a trailer behind the car.


Ben had trained his kids how to sail on Folsom Lake north-east of Sacramento, in the ’80’s, when the lake still was full. He taught them what to do if the boat tipped. Trying to tip the boat on purpose turned out not to be that easy. But they succeeded, and gradually lost track of the mast as it slowly turned up-side down submerging in the water, and the hull sticking up. They had to turn the boat, so that the front would be facing the wind, because once they managed to get the mast up again, the wind would be caught in the sail and they did not want to try to tilt up the boat against the wind.

One place Roland and Ben ended up was at Lake Tahoe. This is a very deep lake up in the Sierra Nevada with half of the lake in California and half in the state of Nevada. It is a very well known lake, especially in the winter when it becomes a ski heaven. The winter Olympics have been held there. They launched the boat, but became aware very soon that even at the end of May, the water is still extremely cold. In the sailboat, it was nice, basking in the sun, but you did not want to tip over and end up in the cold water! Neither of them were afraid of tipping over, but the cold water did not attract them to even think about it.


Here they were, Roland and his brother Ben sailing on Lake Tahoe, in a nice breeze with the mountains surrounding them. It was a great day. That afternoon they found a campsite, did their cooking, and had a nice evening by a campfire. They traveled Highway 395 along the Sierra Nevada ridge and found multiple, nice campgrounds.

From California, Roland went to New Orleans. He was especially interested in seeing the results of hurricane Katrina. With his education in dike and dam construction, he wanted to compare the damage done there, in comparison to the 1953 flood in Holland. Not only the physical damage done, but the influence of politics and culture caught his attention. He realized his prejudice as to how the Dutch took care of floods, versus Americans. After all, he knew the background of how the Dutch try to control water, but really not so much about the background in America. He realized that his description about the 1953 flood would appear far more descriptive and fascinating that his description about Katrina, by comparison.
 
Roland figured he should ask Ben about American culture, since Ben emigrated to California about 25 years ago. What was the culture like in New Orleans? What background should Roland include? In Holland, he knew that protection was so critical, because ⅓ of the country would be under water.

Even Ben had trouble helping! He lived in California. He had read about Katrina, but it was somewhat removed from California, to really understand it. After all, California had its flooding, but that was nothing compared to New Orleans. California dealt more with drought. Even seeing the news about Katrina, or flooding in the Mid-West, did not quite resonate. People in the Mid-West are scared stiff thinking about all the earthquakes in California…! Ben was more afraid of hurricanes he would have to face if he lived in the Mid-West.

It is a challenge to write a story about flooding and drought in different countries, even in different states within a country, and be balanced on both sides of your story. You have to know who you are, to identify your prejudices.

Are you prejudiced about the functions and uses of water?

Prejudices

Roland realized that he knew far more about the 1953 flood in Holland than the 2005 Katrina flood in New Orleans. Of course he was born and raised in Holland so could identify very well with the culture, history, and language of Holland. He probably has preconceived ideas which he may not be aware of. As he delved into reviewing the 1953 flood, he realized that he could identify very easily with the different aspects, even if in unwritten form. He could not do that with the Katrina flood details. Would he have to go back even to the days of slavery to get a picture of the history in context with that flood? Would he give more credence to what happened in 1953 than the 2005 Katrina flood?

If Roland had lived all his life just in Holland that might have been the case, but as a youth he lived in Indonesia and Venezuela. He finished high school and college back in Holland and spent several years in Bangladesh as an engineer. It is also a delta like Holland and Alabama. Roland had a pretty good idea how to balance the consequences of flooding and the cultural plus historical differences.

     Bangladesh is a country riddled with side arms of the  Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers. 
                                  It is low-lying and thus very accessible to flooding.

When we read books about certain states and countries, or subjects, we assume the author is familiar with those areas geographically and historically, which may not necessarily be true. An author can write much more elaborate about areas or subjects he or she knows very well, but leave out details when writing about other areas on the same subject. Thus it might appear that one area is more attractive or better prepared for conditions such as flooding, just from the description. That in turn can result in cynicism, and an “us” and “them” way of thinking. “We” can do it better than “they”.

The Dutch knew very well where the weak spots were, in 1953. They were much more concerned about Rotterdam getting flooded, than The Hague or Amsterdam. They had predictions as to which dikes could break and not worry about it because the water had to go somewhere, and which were the important dikes to save. Same with the New Orleans flood. The National Geographic ran an article about two years before  the flood, suggesting what could happen and where, in the event of a hurricane. It happened exactly as predicted! (Swain, Christopher. "Then & There." National Geographic Adventure (September 2002), 42-3.)

Each of us comes with a set of assumptions and prejudices, some of which we may not be aware. From there the challenge when comparing topics among different countries. Who is the author? What might he / she favor in one country over another?

  Can you relate to something you read and assumed the author had a balanced view point?

1953

Green portions were flooded  (from: de Deltawerken by Hilde de Haan and Ids Haagsma)

Interesting how certain dates or weather patterns will trigger our minds towards the same subject. For example: 9/11 is all I need to say and everyone will know what I’m talking about. Or Katrina, and you all will know I’m talking about the 2005 flood in New Orleans.

1953 is another such trigger, but not for Americans. After Roland had been on vacation in New Orleans and kind of cynically concluded that much of the flooding could either have been contained or construction of subdivisions should not have taken place in certain areas in the first place, he was wondering how the flood in Holland, in 1953 could have been better contained. In other words, Roland kind of presumed that the Dutch were much better at containing the water threats than the Americans. He started with 1953, a date to which every Dutchman can relate, either from experience or the history books in school if he or she did not exist yet in 1953.

Roland himself was about eight years old when that flood on February 1, 1953 took place, but he did not live in Holland at that time. His family had just moved to Venezuela, where his dad was assigned to help direct making Heineken beer. When his family heard about the flood, it was dramatic, but Roland could not exactly visualize it.

After returning to Holland where Roland finished high school and got his engineering degree in water management, specifically about dam construction, he got a better idea about that fateful February 1, 1953 flood. After his vacation to New Orleans recently, he realized that he could relate much better to the 1953 flood, because it was in the country where he was born and raised part of his life; maybe a bit prejudiced? 

New Orleans is also at the mouth of a delta, the Mississippi, just as most of Holland forms the delta of the Rhine and Maas rivers. Roland knew the history of this Dutch delta from his school days. That history goes back to the 1200’s. Since then, documentation about water management had become pretty good. The urgency to maintain control of water is much higher in Holland than around the Mississippi river, because without the dikes and dunes 50% of the country would be under water. Amsterdam would not even exist. Rotterdam would never have been the largest harbor in the world between 1964-2004. About 65% of the Dutch population lives in that below-sea-level area of the country.

Much of the flooded area from Katrina was inhabited for a large part by the poorer black population and only involved a small % of the state. Roland realized that floods were not just a matter of engineering to prevent or manage them, but included political, historical, economic, and cultural issues as well.