03 April 2015

Can vegetarians save us?

I was a vegetarian for around 15 years, so this email from Michael Feinstein got my attention:
Dear fellow vegetarian/vegan/water policy friends and activists

I am coming to you for your help in making the connections between diet and water use in California, particularly as it relates to municipal water policy.

I recently started a weekly column in the Santa Monica Daily Press about local politics but also looking at the larger connections on higher levels of government to local issues

Water conservation and water rate increases have been very controversial in Santa Monica, as they have been in other places. But mostly absent from our municipal discussion has been the relationship between diet and water supply in our state of California.

I am going to write my March 2nd column [still not online!] on this relationship, and am seeking any source documents and/or main points you think need to be made.

Most of us are familiar with how much water goes into 'producing' animals human consumption. But after I make those points, to make what I am saying completely relevant, I also need to show how that would actually affect choices on municipal levels like Santa Monica.

In other words, if we ate lower on the food chain in California, what specific water sources would be freed up for other uses, and how would that actually affect water supply to cities?
In reply I wrote (slightly edited here):
While it's true that a non-meat diet means less water used for THAT kind of food, there are several factors that make this a "non-solution"
  1. Other people eating more meat (e.g., Chinese)
  2. "Excess water" being used to grow more food for export (e.g., California almonds)
  3. Local water issues are not necessarily affected by local habits, e.g., vegetarians in Santa Monica affect water supplies in TX or CO but not California...
My general comment is to avoid "silver bullet" solutions directed at a single "worst" use. Instead, it would be better to tackle water scarcity from all uses, which can occur through a combination of "awareness" (jargon: reducing demand) and higher prices (jargon: reducing quantity demanded -- both explained in my book). Higher prices would lead some to take shorter showers while others would let their lawns die.

With non-urban, bulk water, I'd protect environmental flows before maximizing the benefits of agricultural use (through greater use of markets). I just gave a webinar on this topic ("Farms and Rivers: Balancing between Food Production and the Environment" PDF slides and 1h 2m MP4) for the AWRA.

So... go ahead with the op/ed. I'm guessing that it will make vegatarians feel good and do little more. To have a bigger impact, I suggest that SM and other cities lobby for reduced irrigation (meat prices would go up, unless farm bill subsidies keep them low) and local (SoCal) increases in water prices.


  1. Not really related to water, but vegetarianism seems to have made some impact on negotiations here: http://grist.org/food/48-hours-that-changed-the-future-of-rainforests/
    "They went out to lunch, and Kuok was impressed that Hurowitz was sincere enough about his environmentalism to eat a vegetarian diet."

  2. I don't see vegetarianism as a viable solution because of the massive free rider / coordination problems. Sure, maybe people want to eat less water / energy intensive foods or prevent animal suffering, but I just don't see marginal changes of consumption (on the order of a person or a household) having any noticeable impact on prices of humongously large commodities markets. And, if everyone were vegetarian, the marginal harm of eating meat would be low, so agents would have strong incentives to defect.

    Zooming out, the policy problem is not the consumption of meat / almonds / etc per se; it is the overuse of water. Hence, the proper response should be a water tax, not a meat and almonds tax. I suppose the good news for vegetarians is that raising the cost of meat inputs should raise the cost of downstream meat, lowering consumption, but a direct tax would still be misguided.

    I would file vegetarianism next to voting and boycotts under "Great intentions, negligible impact".

  3. Michael Feinstein04 April, 2015 18:31


  4. What about the documentary "Cowspiracy"? It addresses animal agriculture and climate change and water conservation. Is the information in the documentary incorrect? If you watch the film the only logical conclusion is that we should all become plant based eater. So, what was wrong with the documentary? link http://www.cowspiracy.com/facts/

  5. Hmm. It's great that you're talking about this at all, which is more than we can say for most conversations about this, which manage to avoid the elephant in the room entirely. But Pacific Institute says 47% of California's water footprint is associated with meat and dairy, and that those agricultural products are particularly water-intensive (with a fifth [!] of all CA water going to grow alfalfa hay for livestock feed). National Geographic says a vegan diet conserves 600 gallons of water per day. Oxfam says "Choosing beans instead of meat can help relieve the immense strain our water resources are already under, and help secure safe food supplies for everyone’s future." UNESCO says ""The production of a meat based diet typically consumes twice the amount of water as compared to a vegetarian diet." Scientific American: ""Eating lower on the food chain could allow the same volume of water to feed two Americans instead of one, with no loss in overall nutrition."

    Perhaps most decisively, Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) said in their report "Feeding a Thirsty World":

    "There will not be enough water available on current croplands to produce food for the expected population in 2050 if we follow current trends and changes towards diets common in Western nations (3,000 kcal produced per capita, including 20 per cent of calories produced coming from animal proteins).

    There will, however, be just enough water, if the proportion of animal based foods is limited to 5 per cent of total calories and considerable regional water deficits can be met by a well organised and reliable system of food trade."

    Given this information, why is it that you believe a shift away from animal foods is not really a relevant part of the conversation that will only make vegetarians "feel good?" A perception of vegetarian smugness should not distraction us from the actual urgent issue at hand. More than half of the entire US water supply goes to animal agriculture, per Center for Science in the Public Interest. Half! Having a hard time understanding how you could possibly dismiss discontinuing this inefficient, entirely unsustainable use of water as a solution. Of your 3 reasons, 2 are that it wouldn't work because other parts of the world still will eat meat. Yet no one is saying only Californians should adopt more plant-based diets, this needs to be a global shift, as SIWI says. Your other reason is that water would still be used to grow crops for export. How does this negate the most significant individual water-saving effort we can each make by no longer asking for massive bovines and other water-guzzling, crop-inhaling animals to bred, fed, and slaughtered in the total absence of necessity and given more than half of the entire US water supply in the process?

    (Additionally, animal agriculture is also the leading cause of water pollution, per the UN, and a top cause of climate change, rainforest loss, species extinction, etc.)

    Tons more quotes and stats with all sources and links included: http://www.truthordrought.com/#!quotesstats/c1iqk

    Thank you.

    1. I agree with all your facts. I'm saying (and have, for years) that "good water management" would lead, indirectly, to the reduction of "excessive water using practices." In some cases, that would mean less meat/dairy, but I am focussing on the aggregate, not individual choices.


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