Your Diet is Causing the Drought in California

Your Diet is Causing the Drought in California

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By Steven Rouk

California is running dry. I know this, you know this, anyone who’s turned on the news sometime in the last year knows this.

But for some reason, people don’t seem to actually care about the root of the problem.

If you go to the official California Drought Website, you’ll see the most recent efforts California is making to slow their death by dehydration. On the right hand side of the screen, I see that today’s water-saving tip is to “Water your lawn only when it needs it.” Beside that, I see another tip that says to “Time your shower to keep it under 5 minutes.” In a mandate from the governor, residents have to cut their water usage by 25%, and he also proposed increasing the fine for wasting water from $500 to as much as $10,000. This makes it seem like lawn watering and showers are turning the Golden State brown.

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What’s lost in all of this is the fact that residential water usage accounts for only 12% of water used in the state.

Even if every single person in California were to completely stop taking showers, never water their lawns, and literally cut out every other use of water, California would only save 12% of their water. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not enough. And that’s assuming the impossible situation of everyone going totally dry with their usage. What’s more realistic is that these residential water restrictions will save no more than 3% of the water that California uses.


So where is the rest of the water going?

Agriculture. Specifically, meat and dairy.

Almonds have been getting crap for being a water-intensive crop – which they are – but the much bigger culprits of California’s water consumption are the meat and dairy industries. Infographic time! Combined, meat and dairy account for a whopping 47% of the water used in California. Regarding meat consumption, Oxfam states that “By making one meal a week with lentils instead of beef, a family of four can save the equivalent of 17 bathtubs of water.” Seventeen bathtubs of water! But sure, take shorter showers. And check out these other quotes.

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The governor is encouraging people to take shorter showers when he should be encouraging people to abandon meat and dairy products.

Why is no one talking about this? Why hasn’t the governor acted more strongly to encourage people to alter their lifestyles in ways that will actually make a difference, instead of promoting almost-trivial changes like taking shorter showers? Simply put, this willful ignorance can probably be traced back to the industries themselves.

The meat and dairy industries have had a long history of stifling any sort of facts that would be bad for business, as well as strong-arming politicians into doing their bidding. Another great example of this right now is the meat industry’s strong negative reaction to the vastly improved dietary guideline recommendations, which if implemented would have immensely positive effects on our nation’s health and environmental impact.

People need to eat – but that doesn’t mean they need to eat water-wasting foods in the middle of a 1000-year drought.

If people were to eliminate meat and dairy products from their diets and switch to plant-based foods, California could save 30% of the water they currently use. The alfalfa that’s fed to cows uses up a whopping 15% of the water in California – that 15% could easily be saved just by a simple change in diet, yet the conversation doesn’t even appear to be on the table. California could take the vast amount of water used by these industries and instead use it to grow food for humans.

How can we be ignoring one of the main contributors to water use? How can we not even talk about what could be the solution to this problem and others?

Our choices to consume resource-intensive meat and dairy products truly have no legitimate rationale. The only reason these products remain on the shelves is because we believe we have the choice to consume whatever we like, regardless of the impact of those decisions. And now, in California, we can really see the impact that those decisions have had.

If you care about what’s happening in California, make the decision to leave meat and dairy off your plates. You can forsake almonds as well if you want, and of course it’s good to look at how much water you use around the house – every little bit counts. But know the impact of your choices, and know that what you put on your plate matters much more than most of the other decisions you make.




This article represents the opinions of its author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Food Rescue nor the Food Rescue Alliance.

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