17 July 2012

Save the world -- go vegetarian!

Editor's note: James Workman taught "Unlocking the Real Worth of Water" as a visiting professor at Wesleyan University last semester. He told his students that they -- like all people -- needed to be "water resource managers" because water allocations are increasingly driven by subjective individual values, not top-down planing. The students addressed these ideas from different perspectives (local utility, energy/water nexus, and water and food trade); each choose one essay to post here. Please tell them what they got right or wrong.

Charming Yu writes...

Many Americans label themselves as "carnivores" without knowing that a "carnivore" diet exacerbates and accelerates water scarcity. You might not feel the effects of water scarcity as a result of living in an area where water can be accessed via the tap 24/7. The effects of water scarcity might be unevenly distributed at the moment, but we will collectively feel them sooner or later when we can no longer outsource our thirst. We cannot afford to be frivolous in our consumption patterns. So what can you do about this? You can walk away from that plate of steak.

Meat production and processing is so intensive that it takes 480 liters of water to produce the bacon on your breakfast plate as opposed to 70 liters of water for an apple.* As a result of a couple additional steps in meat production, like food for pigs, that increases the amount of water used, non-vegetarians consume about 5000 liters of water per day just in food consumption. Vegetarians, on the other hand, consume about 2700 liters of water per day. Think about how much water you can save by opting to eat an apple rather than a couple pieces of bacon!

You might think that I’m overreacting, but we, who live in industrialized nations, are not setting a good example for our counterparts. Thus far, we have shown that an increase of affluence increases meat consumption in the daily diet, which in turn increases the total water consumption. To illustrate, the average person in the Middle East consumes only 2/3 of the amount of water that the average person in the US or Europe consumes daily.* Unfortunately, following our trend, non-industrialized countries have been increasingly consuming more meat and water intensive produce as they develop. If we’re already facing water scarcity, a global increase in meat consumption is definitely not sustainable.

If you still think that the water crisis is not something we should be concerned about, it is only because we are outsourcing our thirst. We don’t realize it, but we are so thirsty that we are using our own water supply in addition to other countries’. When we import food, we import that country’s water in the form of embedded water in addition to its food. As shown above, there is a tremendous amount of water embedded and hidden in food, but none of this is reflected through price. We are technically water thieves! Industrialized nations are unconsciously stealing water and are partially responsible for other countries’ food and water shortages as well as subsequent violence and suffering that stem from these water issues.

Understandably, non-vegetarians in the US can be absolutely protective of their meat intake because animal products have been a part of our consumption patterns for a large chunk of time. However, the time to break that pattern is right now. Meat consumption is not sustainable and should we continue to ignore this, we might no longer have the opportunity to mitigate water scarcity. To help this transition to a less water intensive lifestyle and visually illustrate embedded water, I suggest that packaging companies start indicating the water footprint of every animal product and even produce. If not for the sake of the adorable animals and sensitive ecosystems, then go vegetarian for the sake of the sake of food and water security. Go vegetarian for the sake of the human race, for yourself and for your descendants. Start today. Set a good example for non-industrialized countries and the next generation so they can follow our positive instead of negative footsteps.

*Statistics from Tony Allan’s Virtual Water

1 comment:

Sylvie Burns said...

Becoming vegetarian is not the solution to our water (and environmental) challenges. Yes, meat production uses much more water than the production of most crops. Yet, recommending choosing apples over bacon on your breakfast plate is misguided and, if heeded by citizens worldwide, could have devastating consequences to ecosystems around the globe.
Some ecosystems lend themselves to meat production, other to the farming of crops, fruit or vegetables. For example, in the Bavarian Alps, where I grew up, farmers traditionally led (some still do) their cattle up the mountains in the spring, where they graze all summer. In the fall, livestock is driven back down into the valley, some to be slaughtered and eaten. The environment lends itself to this kind of farming, and, if mountain meadows aren’t overgrazed, no harm is done to the local ecosystem. If farmers had to switch to planting of crops and produce due to consumers’ choice to “do the right thing and become vegetarian,” they might have to terrace and irrigate mountain slopes, which would be a much larger change to the ecosystem than the cattle grazing that’s been practiced for centuries, and presumably have devastating consequences to local ecosystems and watersheds.
Deciding which kind of food is the most environmentally friendly requires us really understand the actual trade-offs between concrete choices we face and should be made on a case by case basis (imported apple, grown in an arid climate, shipped to the local supermarket, vs. bacon from locally and sustainably raised pork from a farm just down the road). To use water input as the sole, deciding factor will lead to some very bad choices.