3 Apr 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.