This article originally appeared on The Daily Pitchfork.
A version of this article, written by James McWilliams, appeared in The New York Times about a year ago. Given the recent media emphasis on California's drought, it seemed an opportune time for The Daily Pitchfork to run a reminder that animal agriculture is the state's largest consumer of ag-based water. It also serves as a precursor to an upcoming piece that we'll be running on the failure of foodie writers to address the role of meat and dairy in the state's severe drought. - JM California is experiencing its worst drought on record. Just three and a half years ago, Folsom Lake, a major reservoir outside Sacramento, was at 83 percent capacity. Today it's down past 30 percent. Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency. President Obama has pledged $183 million in emergency funding. The situation is, by any assessment, dire.
With California producing nearly half of the fruit and vegetables grown in the United States, attention has naturally focused on the water required to grow popular foods such as walnuts, broccoli, lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries, almonds and grapes. These crops are the ones that a recent report in the magazine Mother Jones highlighted as being water intensive. Who knew, for example, that it took 5.4 gallons to produce a head of broccoli, or 3.3 gallons to grow a single tomato? This information about the water footprint of food products - that is, the amount of water required to produce them - is important to understand, especially for a state that dedicates about 80 percent of its water to agriculture.
But for those truly interested in lowering their water footprint, those numbers pale next to the water required to sustain livestock. A 2012 study in the journal Ecosystems by Mesfin M. Mekonnen and Arjen Y. Hoekstra, both at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, tells an important story. Beef turns out to have an overall water footprint of roughly four million gallons per ton produced. By contrast, the water footprint for "sugar crops" like sugar beets is about 52,000 gallons per ton; for vegetables it's 85,000 gallons per ton; and for starchy roots it's about 102,200 gallons per ton.
Factor in the kind of water required to produce these foods, and the water situation looks even worse for the future of animal agriculture in drought-stricken regions that use what's known as "blue water," or water stored in lakes, rivers and aquifers, which California and much of the West depend on.
Vegetables use about 11,300 gallons per ton of blue water; starchy roots, about 4,200 gallons per ton; and fruit, about 38,800 gallons per ton. By comparison, pork consumes 121,000 gallons of blue water per ton of meat produced; beef, about 145,000 gallons per ton; and butter, some 122,800 gallons per ton. There's a reason other than the drought that Folsom Lake has dropped as precipitously as it has. Don't look at kale as the culprit–or almonds, as Mother Jones, which dedicated six articles to the topic in 2014, has done. Instead, a single plant is leading California's water consumption.
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