Last week I went out with my friends to a local English pub. I asked the server for a glass of water. He returned with a small glass, an apologetic twinge buckling the edges of his face as he passed me my water.
“I’m really sorry but because of the drought we can only offer small glasses. I’ll be more than happy to re-fill it for you, though.”
I smiled and said no problem at all, sipping placidly at my mini glass of water. At the table next to mine, a man and his wife ordered two, 16-ounce steaks topped with butter. I waited for the server to mention the cost of water that comes with those steaks—2500 gallons of water per steak—but no such admonition came.
According to a 2012 study featured in ‘Ecosystems’ journal, beef costs nearly 4 million gallons of water per ton to produce. That same study in Ecosystems journal calculated that vegetables rack up a measly 85,000 gallons per ton, and starchy veggies just over 100,000 gallons of water per ton.
So why are the largest users of water in our state—the meat and dairy industries—not being held accountable for their rampant, destructive, and dangerous use of water? In other words, why was the couple who ordered steak not reminded of the water cost of their meal, while my single glass of tap water got the dunce cap?
To add insult to California’s water injury, professor and author of “The Politics of the Pasture,” James McWilliams, wrote in the New York Times that “Alfalfa growers are now exporting some 100 billion gallons of water a year from this drought-ridden region to the other side of the world in the form of alfalfa. All as more Asians are embracing the American-style, meat-hungry diet.”
So in a sense, Californians are quite literally sending their water overseas to meet China’s growing demand for a more westernized diet based on meat and dairy. As we have learned that the western diet is the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions, species extinction, loss of rainforest, ocean dead zones, and now, loss of fresh water, we should be questioning the logic behind this business decision when such high costs are inevitable.
With Governor Brown’s recent restrictions place on California’s water use, residential and urban areas will be forced to reduce their water use by 25%, all while the largest users of water are not openly acknowledged by our state government, let alone held accountable for their use.
The lopsided use and misuse of water in California was touched upon at the Berkeley Vegan Earth Day festival on April 19 when Carter Dillard of the Animal Legal Defense Fund served on a panel discussing animal agriculture and sustainability. Dillard explained to the audience that California has something known as the “Reasonable Use Doctrine and Agricultural Water Use Efficiency.” This document aims to prevent “unreasonable use or unreasonable method of use” of water. Under this statute, the export of 100 billion gallons of water in the form of alfalfa crops to China is not only outrageous misuse, but also categorically unreasonable by any standard even on a good day, but especially while we are in the grips of the worst drought in California’s history.
This pernicious waste of water is an embarrassment to our state and our country at large. Californians (and all Americans) deserve and need to know that their demand for meat and dairy fuels this enormous misuse of water.
Meat and dairy industries currently comprise 47% of all water usage in California, while all other agriculture including the criminalized almond, accounts for 46% of water usage. In a recent segment on Democracy Now, Cowspiracy filmmakers Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn explained that while almonds account for nearly 10% of California’s water supply, those almonds produced in California meet 80% (!!) of the entire world’s almond demands. Also, the filmmakers reminded listeners that Californians are not eating nine ounces of almonds daily, but the majority of Americans (98%) are eating an average of nine ounces of meat and dairy each day, which carry an even weightier water footprint than almonds.
We could potentially eliminate 47% of water usage simply by refusing to purchase meat and dairy products. Some of that “saved” water could be put back into the agriculture that we humans do need to survive such as grains, fruits, starches, and veggies. This may seem like a far-fetched or alarmist response to the drought; however, not having enough water for California residents to drink is the alternative to not taking more serious action now. We look forward to the day when the California water board recognizes animal agriculture for what it is—the cow in the room drinking all of our water.
If you’re interested in taking action against California’s prohibitive use of water—please go sign this petition started by Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn, filmmakers of Cowspiracy.