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It's Time to Consider Veganism if You Care About California's Drought

California's ongoing water catastrophe is worsened by all the water its meat and dairy industries drink. It's a good time to consider getting on board with the whole vegan thing.
Photo via FEMA/Wikimedia Commons

Last week, Jerry Brown, the governor of drought-stricken California, decreed that water usage in his state's cities and towns should be cut down by 25 percent. That's likely a necessary measure in a bona fide crisis—California has been in an official drought emergency since January 2014—but the order doesn't cover farms, which use 80 percent of the state's water. Agriculture makes up a small percentage of the California economy, but big-time farmers still wield a lot of political power, which may have helped them escape the restrictions placed upon everyone else.


Some activists are understandably pissed off about this. Liam Cronin, a PETA spokesman, told me that Brown's order is "kind of like treating a splinter when someone has cut your arm off." He has a different plan for fighting the drought: go vegan. On April 3, PETA sent a letter to Brown urging a ban on meat and dairy at all state-run institutions.

"It's irresponsible to restrict water to local homes, businesses, and schools while allowing its free flow to the water-intensive production chains of the meat and dairy industries," Tracy Reiman, PETA's Executive Vice President, wrote. "The production of a single pound of beef requires more than 1,500 gallons of precious water. Thirsty feed crops such as alfalfa are among the largest water users in California—yet they are cultivated to feed cattle, not California's residents."

It's not as if the drought has motivated PETA to change its stance on anything, of course. Cronin readily concedes that his group had been pushing for a boycott "well before the drought became a topic of conversation," adding that "it's kind of our thing." But the numbers seem to back him up. According to the most recent report from the Pacific Institute, from 2012, 47 percent of California's water goes toward the production of meat or dairy in some way.

And that's really saying something, because California grows some insanely thirsty plants. Almonds are California's little teardrop-shaped water-wasting whipping boys right now, and they make pretty good villains, since they require about one gallon of water per nut; almond crops are reportedly responsible for three times the water consumption per year as the entire city of Los Angeles. An infographic in the LA Times about water-wasting foods showed that vegetarian staples like chick peas take a lot of H2O to grow.


But even that Times report pointed out that "cutting food derived from animals from our diet can significantly help water conservation efforts." According to food historian James McWilliams's analysis of a 2012 report on worldwide water usage in agriculture from the University of Twente in the Netherlands, growing a ton of vegetables costs 11,300 gallons of water, compared to 38,000 gallons for a ton of root crops like potatoes—but it takes an incredible 121,000 gallons to produce a ton of pork, and 145,000 gallons for a ton of beef. A different study out of that same university found that a soy burger's water footprint is an eye-popping 7 percent that of a beef burger.

But it's not just meat. The dairy industry is shockingly inefficient in terms of its water usage. About a year ago, Mother Jones crunched numbers on a few different milk-style beverages. Granted, almond milk stacked up poorly at 23 gallons of water per glass, compared to soy milk's nine gallons. But despite all the recent demonization of almonds, milk was even worse at 30 gallons of water per glass.

It's not that I want to ban dairy farms and ranches. There are surely many places where cows get treated well on their way to becoming burgers or giving us milk. But the California dairy industry is built around a high-density model that's been copied by Saudi farmers. "The Californian model is simply that you don't have to grow all your grass and raise your own feed crops, you can import feed and water and all your input and house a thousand head of dairy cattle on just 40 acres of land," dairy economist Leslie Butler told CNN in 2013.


California cows generally eat alfalfa brought in from other Golden State farms. Alfalfa is a moderately water-intensive crop, but hungry cows demand so much of it, it consumes an astounding 15 percent of the state's water. Bizarrely, even in the midst of an historic drought, alfalfa, is being exported in huge quantities to markets in Asia, which means California is essentially sending away 100 billion gallons of water in the form of alfalfa.

So what can we do about this? You can start by becoming a vegan.

There all sorts of arguments for becoming a vegan under normal circumstances, but the drought surely gives us an extra incentive to avoid eating meat and dairy—the production of these foods is sucking the state dry. And while you may not agree with PETA on everything, they've got the numbers on their side when it comes to the water wasted on cows.

There are, of course, finer points about being a vegan, like whether to wear leather—which is usually made in China or India—and whether oysters really count. Those issues might not link up with the drought. You don't even have to call yourself a "vegan" if that term conjures up some overly self-righteous associations for you; if you like, you could even merely cut way down on meat and milk rather than eliminating those things from your life entirely, which is what many of America's non-vegetarian food gurus already do.

If there's one lesson we can learn from the broader trend of climate change, it's that our consumption habits have an effect on the world. Brown's decree limited water usage is step in the right direction—we need to cut back in the face of severe drought. But it's not just enough to look to our lawns and toilet-flushing habits; we need to look in our grocery carts too.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.