California’s drought has only gotten worse since Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency two months ago. Downtown Los Angeles recorded zero inches of rainfall in January, and President Obama has announced nearly $200 million in emergency aid.
Brown has asked Californians to reduce their water consumption by cutting back on laundry, showers, sprinklers, and dishwashing. But as Hope Bohanec recently reported, personal use only constitutes roughly 4 percent of the state’s water footprint. Agricultural use, meanwhile, represents a shocking 93 percent, according to a 2012 report. So, if Californians are truly interested in lowering their water footprint, their focus must turn from their dishwashers to their dinner plates.
“It’s seductive to think that we can continue along our carnivorous route, even in this era of climate instability,” writes James McWilliams in a recent New York Times piece. “The environmental impact of cattle in California, however, reminds us how mistaken this idea is coming to seem.”
Just how big is this impact? Beef has an overall water footprint of about four million gallons per ton, while vegetables only require 85,000 gallons per ton. Furthermore, pork and beef use 121,000 to 145,000 gallons of blue water, the especially precious water stored in rivers, lakes, and aquifers. Veggies, in contrast, use only 11,300 gallons of blue water per ton, and starchy roots use a relatively tiny 4,200 gallons per ton.
In addition to all the water directly required to raise livestock, animal agriculture impacts plant production in a major way. Alfalfa uses more water than any other plant grown in California, and the crop isn’t being fed to humans. Instead, it’s shipped to grass-fed beef operations and factory farms. The real kicker is that the resulting beef and dairy aren’t even eaten by Californians; the alfalfa is sent to China, which now imports around 100 billion water gallons worth of the crop.
On top of all this, Rancho Feeding Corporation in Petaluma, Calif., recently recalled 8.7 million pounds of improperly inspected beef. This equates to over 630 million gallons of wasted water, on top of the uneaten meat.
So, how can the average Californian reduce water consumption? Shorter showers won’t hurt, but a more effective solution is to stop consuming animal products. Switching to a vegetarian diet reduces the average consumer’s water footprint by almost 60 percent, according to McWilliams. If you’re currently vegetarian, give veganism a try; if you’re already full-veg, try reaching out to friends and family who haven’t yet seen the light. They may not have been swayed in the past, but perhaps this state of emergency will help them realize that by eating more plant foods and reducing their consumption of animal products, Californians can take it upon themselves to help turn this crisis around.
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