A plant-based diet can help save water

About 900 gallons of water are needed for every gallon of milk produced by each of the state’s nearly 2 million dairy cows.
About 900 gallons of water are needed for every gallon of milk produced by each of the state’s nearly 2 million dairy cows. Sacramento Bee file

Imagine a doctor reading a sickly heart patient’s stats to him: Cholesterol above 300, sky-high blood pressure, and a body mass index in the morbidly obese category. If the patient doesn’t change his ways, the doctor says, he could be in for catastrophic problems.

Rather than suggesting her patient cut back on bacon cheeseburgers, ice cream floats and pepperoni pizza, the doctor simply suggests a 15-minute daily walk. Certainly walking is good advice, yet few would suggest it strikes at the problem’s root.

Such is also the case with drought-stricken California’s new water restrictions.

As Henry David Thoreau said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

The root of California’s water overuse isn’t long showers and front lawns; it’s the agribusinesses that use 80 percent of the state’s developed water while representing about 2 percent of the state’s economy.

Taking a closer look, it’s clear that one type of agribusiness – animal agribusiness – is the most water-intensive. As the humanitarian aid group Oxfam notes, “It takes massive amounts of land, water, fertilizer, oil and other resources to produce meat, significantly more than it requires to grow other nutritious and delicious kinds of food.”

Of course, Californians should be taking shorter showers, just like our fictional patient should be exercising more. But we’d be foolish to ignore the 1,000 gallons of water used to bring one chicken from shell to shelf, and included to grow that chicken’s feed.

To put that in perspective, you’d save more water skipping one purchase of a chicken than by skipping six months of showers.

We also shouldn’t ignore the 50 gallons of water behind every single one of the more than 8 billion eggs laid each year by California’s 15 million egg-laying chickens. Coincidentally, that’s about 400 billion gallons of water a year: the same targeted savings of Brown’s latest restrictions.

And finally we must grapple with the 900 gallons of water needed for every single gallon of milk produced by each of the state’s nearly 2 million dairy cows. We save 850 gallons of water when we buy a gallon of soy milk instead of cow’s milk.

Yet for all the obsession with almonds, experts agree that plant-based proteins use less water than their animal-based counterparts. Indeed, the top recommendation issued by the United Nations for World Water Day each spring urges us to “replace meat with another source of protein.”

Time will tell if the state will extend its water restrictions to animal agribusinesses. But we can each get serious about water conservation every time we decide what to eat. The explosion of delicious protein-packed vegetarian foods in the marketplace is making a water-friendlier diet more convenient than ever before. And, of course, eating foods that save water – plants rather than animals – also helps improve our own health. That’s why the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is recommending that Americans switch to a more plant-based diet.

Restaurant chains like Chipotle offer hearty meatless options like braised chili-tofu Sofritas and multiple kinds of beans. Others, like Denny’s, carry veggie burgers that regularly please even the most carnivorous consumer. Taco Bell offers bean and rice burritos. The list goes on.

And these options conserve not only water but also keep our wallets wider. For example, it’s always more economical to opt for Chipotle’s bean and rice burritos than its meat options. Burger King’s veggie burger will leave more bucks in your bank account than a Whopper. Every single vegetarian entrée at PF Chang’s is less expensive than every meat-based entrée it offers.

More of us are choosing these options more often. Whether through popular concepts like Meatless Mondays or Mark Bittman’s Vegan Before 6 p.m. plan, we Americans are eating about 10 percent less meat per capita than we were in 2007.

So, yes, the heart patient should walk more and we should use less water on our lawns. But let’s also recognize that we can each strike at the root of the water problem with our forks every time we sit down to eat.

Paul Shapiro is the vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States. Follow him on Twitter @pshapiro.