California’s thirstiest export: cattle

By Isabel Barbera
Assoc. Opinion Editor

Walking down the picture perfect, tree lined streets in the upper middle class bubble of South Pasadena, it is easy to forget the reality of the severe drought California is experiencing. In California’s Central Valley, however, thousands of people live in homes without any running water. And according to a 2014 study, the current water shortage is the worst California has seen in over 1,200 years.

To combat the water crisis, Californians are constantly told to take shorter showers, fix leaky faucets, and turn off the tap while brushing their teeth. Only recently did mainstream media publicize information exposing agriculture as the main source of water consumption in California. We’ve now been told to hold off on eating almonds, and to put down the walnuts. While all these practices are undoubtedly important and certainly necessary, the most important call to consumers in California has yet to be sung: stop eating meat.

The Water Education Foundation estimates that, due to the hydration of cattle, irrigation of crops for feeding livestock, and cleaning of butchering equipment, one pound of beef (four hamburgers) requires over 2000 gallons of water to produce. To put that in perspective, one pound of wheat takes 132 gallons, and one pound of broccoli takes a scant 34 gallons. With California being one of the top five beef producers in the nation, and alfalfa — a main nutrient for cattle — earning the slot as the state’s number one water consuming crop, the water footprint of the beef industry in California is undeniable.

Unfortunately, beef is not the only problem. Virtually all meats are incredibly thirsty products to manufacture. Also, by default, all animal products are incredible sources of water consumption.
If California’s meat and dairy were all being consumed by a local people lacking other viable proteins, the excessive use of scarce resources to water the thousands of miles of alfalfa and fatten the ever growing livestock population might be justifiable. But the awful reality is that a huge portion of meat never makes it to the mouths of Californian consumers. Recalls for spoiled product are common and much of the meat and alfalfa produced in California is actually outsourced to other states and countries. Furthermore, there are better ways to get protein, especially in an area like South Pasadena. Beans, broccoli, and grains are all excellent sources of protein that have significantly less harmful effects on the environment.

The reality of the matter is, most people are not willing to go vegetarian or vegan at the drop of a hat, or even in response to a crisis. But by simply altering your diet to reduce the amount of meat and dairy you consume, and choosing the slightly more efficient meats, such as chicken, you can significantly affect your own water footprint.