Water conservation has been a perennial concern in California for the past four years—and rightfully so. A study released on December 28th revealed that 58 million trees in the state have suffered severe water depletion due to the drought and are at risk of dying. Using an advanced imaging tool, the study’s research team at the Carnegie Institution for Science achieved a complete picture of the drought’s impact on California’s forests for the first time. The resulting images serve as a stark visual reminder of the dire nature of the current situation and potential long-term environmental damage that will occur if drought conditions continue.

As Californians know, the state government has called for some serious changes in an attempt to conserve water. In addition to mandated reductions in water use for businesses and in public areas, individual citizens are instructed to take shorter showers, replace old appliances, water lawns less, and cut back on overall domestic water use or else incur steep water bills.

All of these changes are certainly important and must be part of a comprehensive plan to combat the drought’s impact. However, glaringly missing from the government’s laundry list of recommendations is a call for Californians to make changes in an area that affects water usage the most: that is, what we buy at the grocery store.

California agriculture expends an astounding 80% of the state’s total water resources. You wouldn’t know it from the media coverage of this issue, but the almond is not agriculture’s greatest water-guzzling offender. In fact, pound-for-pound, meat and dairy products require significantly more water to produce. Because water is first needed to grow the food that a farm animal eats and then sustain that animal throughout its life, animal products are extremely water-inefficient.

Growing alfalfa hay alone—a major source of feed for cattle and dairy cows—amounts to a whopping 15% of California’s water supply. Pasture for grazing livestock requires nearly as much water. To illustrate the point further:  producing one pound of beef in California requires the same amount of water that a person would use to take an average-length shower on a daily basis for six months.

In light of this information, it makes little sense to emphasize the importance of shower length while ignoring dietary choices that are far more consequential. Surely it is more rational to target the sector that is responsible for the most water usage. And if the Californian government is not going to take this matter into its own hands, then consumers must. At the very least, we must work towards reducing the amount of meat and dairy products we purchase. Less demand means less production, which in turn means less water consumption.

There is no single solution to the problems posed by the drought. Government policy and individual choices must work in tandem to provide a framework for conservation. However, reduction or elimination of animal products from our diets is a critical piece of the puzzle.

Roxy Kushner
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology major
Cowell College