Fight Drought with Diet – What’s the Water Footprint of your Food?

This billboard about how to fight drought with diet appeared in
my neighborhood and brightened my day! If you care about the
planet, it’s time to take a hard look at what’s on your plate.

This billboard about how to fight drought with diet appeared in my neighborhood and brightened my day! If you care about the planet, it's time to take a hard look at what's on your plate.

This billboard – which I saw on my bike commute in San
Francisco – is a public art project and social media campaign
by Los Angeles-based artists Karen Fiorito and Alex Arinsberg,
focused on raising people’s awareness about how much water it
takes to produce meat and dairy as opposed to a plant-based
diet – with the hope that they would ‘shock’ some residents
into thinking differently about their diets. The billboards
were seen around LA in late 2015, and arrived in San Francisco
in late 2016 (I’m a bit late writing this post!).

The idea that meat is so directly related to drought is not
news to me or others in the vegan food scene, but it’s still (I
would suggest) a rather new and/or challenging concept for
others to accept.

I feel like this argument was never more clear than in the
debate that raged about two years ago about almonds: almost
overnight, it seems that almonds went from being everyone’s
favorite superfood to the scapegoat for the water issues facing
California. News channels dramatically covered the zillions
(approximately) of gallons of water almonds use during all
their growing stages, and derided the new acceptance of almond
milk as a dairy alternative.
Slate
referred to it as ‘almond-shaming.’
But you know what these commentators did not cover? The fact
that animal agriculture uses even more water than almonds.

If you’re serious about trying to fight drought with diet, you
should be eating less (or no!) meat, not shaming poor,
defenseless almonds.

Last year, when this debate was raging, California was the
middle of a long drought –
10-15 years depending on who is estimating
. Aquifers across
the state were running low, straining the groundwater needed
for the huge population and growing all the food for the state
and for domestic and international sale.


Animal agriculture
is really just the worst for the planet
– this is now
a mainstream discussion
. And this is especially important
when it comes to water issues. In the same
Slate
article, Eric Holthaus writes that, “Almonds are
much more efficient water-users, per calorie, than dairy or
beef,” and that “Replacing a glass of cow’s milk with almond
milk is a net gain for the environment.” This doesn’t mean that
almonds have zero environmental impact: I was shocked to see
the amount of flooded orchards when I drove through the central
part of the state.

It was an extra rainy winter and spring, especially in Northern
California, which help alleviate some of the worst issues. But
as reported in
a new study
, movement towards a more plant-based diet is a
big issue when it comes to saving our productive farmland.
Though this study focused more on land-based environment
issues, their points are salient and are connected to water
concerns in that improvement in efficiency will help improve
runoff, manure issues, and general ecosystem health.

In the study, Michael Clark and David Tillman write,

“[For] all environmental indicators and nutritional units
examined, plant-based foods have the lowest environmental
impacts; eggs, dairy, pork, poultry, non-trawling fisheries,
and non-recirculating aquaculture have intermediate impacts;
and ruminant meat has impacts ~100 times those of plant-based
foods. Our analyses show that dietary shifts towards low-impact
foods and increases in agricultural input use efficiency would
offer larger environmental benefits than would switches from
conventional agricultural systems to alternatives such as
organic agriculture or grass-fed beef.”


WaterFootprint
shares stats on how much water some common
agricultural products (including animal food), and of course,
the biggest water users are meat and animal products, followed
by nuts.

To me this returns us to the adage that you can’t be a meat-eating
environmentalist
. I know this is a controversial statement
(and I have tons of friends that eat meat and are ardent
climate change activists), but once you start digging into the
facts of water issues,
runoff
,
rainforest clearing
, antibiotic use and increasing
human antibiotic resistance
… all these things up and it
becomes so abundantly clear that a meat-focused diet it truly a
path to a a less healthy future for us all.

image originally from PETA


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