Virtual Water Made Actual

Occasionally for lunch I slip away from the office, grab a sandwich from one of the places across the street, and head over to a little flood control pond about a mile from my office to check out the birds.

The sandwiches are messy, and inevitably little bits of lettuce spill out on the ground around me. Which, I’ve noticed, the local ants particularly love. I can only assume it’s the water content, since iceberg lettuce has very little nutritional value.

Imperial Valley farmland, courtesy Doc Searls

Imperial Valley farmland, courtesy Doc Searls

As I watched an ant struggle the other day with a piece of lettuce as large as itself, I was struck by the way this bit of virtual water had been made actual.

“Virtual water” is the term of art for importation of a water-intensive product. We don’t have enough water here in New Mexico to grow iceberg lettuce, so we import it from the Imperial Valley, along the Lower Colorado River. It’s a lot cheaper and less hassle to just import the lettuce, rather than schlepping the water all the way across the continental divide. It’s sunny in the Imperial Valley, and thanks to accidents of geography, law and history, the valley’s farmers have an awful lot of cheap water at their disposal for the growing of lettuce.

So here we have this vast apparatus of irrigation infrastructure in the Imperial Valley, refrigerated shipping to get the lettuce to Albuquerque, a sandwich shop, me – all to bring a bit of water to an ant. There are doubtless more efficient ways, but it has a sort of Rube Goldberg charm.

(photo courtesy Doc Searls, some rights reserved)


  1. Not enough water to grow lettuce in the Middle Rio Grande? Maybe someday. Depends.

    Someday, not enough cheap oil for schlepping lettuce from the imperial Valley. That’s more certain.

  2. Countries and corporations know virtual water. This is why Nestlé is everywhere buying up land, for the water rights underneath it.

    Their CEO (IIRC) wrote a piece in FT recently that outlined why they are doing so: because others are too, including countries. He stated since 2007 land twice the area as Germany’s breadbasket has been bought for the virtual water associated with it.



  3. Pingback: jfleck at inkstain » In the long emergency, how far will we ship our lettuce?

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