According to NASA, half of the mainland United States is facing drier-than-usual conditions, with 15% of the country experiencing “extreme to exceptional drought.”
The situation becomes particularly dire in western states such as California, 100% of which is currently in drought. In fact, California is on track to suffer one of its worst droughts in the last 500 years. With an understanding of agriculture being the largest user of ground and surface water in the United States – accounting for approximately 80% of the nation’s consumptive water use – coupled with the knowledge that California’s agricultural sector is responsible for about half the fruits and vegetables grown in the United States, a drought of this magnitude has significantly detrimental consequences to the sustainability of our nation’s food supply.
The effects of the drought are only further exacerbated by the fact that of the 80% of water used in agriculture, nearly half is being used to raise and feed livestock for food. Beef turns out to have an overall water footprint of roughly four million gallons per ton produced. That equates to 2,000 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat. In contrast, it only takes 25 gallons of water to grow 1 pound of wheat. Simply put, you would “save more water by not eating a pound of meat than you would by not showering for six months.”
Thus, as environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage threatening the human future. Per-capita meat consumption has more than doubled in the past half-century, even as the global population has continued to increase. As a result, the overall demand for meat has increased five-fold, putting escalating pressure on the availability of water, land, feed, fertilizer, fuel, waste disposal capacity, and most of the other limited resources of the planet.
Adding further fuel to the flame is the growing evidence linking global warming’s role to the intensity and longevity of droughts. In general, there is enough evidence to suggest that droughts will become more intense in many parts of the world if the planet keeps heating up – a trend that could disrupt the world’s food supply. More specifically to California, a new study blames a “dipole,” a combination of a strong western high pressure ridge and deep Great Lakes low pressure trough. This dipole has been linked to a recently found precursor to El Nino, having been amplified by a build-up of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.
Thus, while it is understandable for concerned citizens and consumers to feel helpless in the face of these complex industrial and global realities, there’s a clear and accessible action we can all take: reducing our consumption of animal products. This one small, yet simple behavior of displacing a high animal based diet to one that simply includes more fruits and vegetables ripples into multiple beneficial effects. It betters your physical health, reduces your food-related water footprint, and reduces carbon emissions associated with our current high animal-based diets. This in turn leads to positive financial benefits, such as decreasing overall health care costs associated with the development and treatment of chronic diseases or other preventable health complications.
Borenstein, S. (April, 2014) California Drought Linked to Global Warming in New Study. Retrieved June 5th, 2014, from The Huffington Post.
IPCC (2012) Managing the Risk of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation. Retrieved June 5th, 2014, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
McWilliams, J. (March, 2014) Meat Makes the Planet Thirsty. Retrieved June 5th, 2014, from The New York Times.
NASA (May, 2014) Drought Recorded Across Half of the U.S. Retrieved June 5th, 2014, from The National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Park, A. & Lurie, J. (February, 2014) It Takes How Much Water to Grow an Almond?! Retrieved June 5th, 2014, from Mother Jones.
Plumer, B. (May, 2014) Five Maps of America’s Massive Drought. Retrieved June 5th, 2014, from Vox.
USDA (January, 2013) Irrigation & Water Use. Retrieved June 5th, 2014, from the United States Department of Agriculture.
Worldwatch Institute (2004) Is Meat Sustainable? Retrieved June 5th, 2014, from The Worldwatch Institute.