At least once a week I suffer through what I like to call Someone is Wrong on the Internet! syndrome. I will see what is obviously meant to be an offhand comment about an article on either Facebook or Twitter, and immediately think to myself "Really? That can't be right..." What follows is the proverbial rabbit hole of exploration into a topic. Thanks to Google, Wikipedia, and literally a million data sources, you can investigate an issue to your heart's content. Often losing hours of a night or day trying to figure out the real nuances of an issue so you can truly understand it.
Just the other day, a friend posted a link to a Treehugger article concerning the water footprint for various food stuffs; everything from lettuce to beef to tea and coffee. The Facebook comment about the article suggested that if we were truly serious about addressing the water crisis in California we would examine our food consumption and she pointed at meat specifically. The first thought that flew into my head was that not all foods were equal in caloric density. I think any middle school student worth their salt, if you will excuse the expression, would say unequivocally that lettuce provides fewer calories than meat. Thus, water requirements are only the tip of the iceberg [lettuce] when it comes to scrutinizing the appropriateness of our diets in a drought.
Part of me is strictly opposed to relying on simple us vs. them points of view when expressing a voice in changing policy or personal attitudes. Nearly every important issue is nuanced enough that a single article or chart cannot help shape an effective strategy.
For example, looking at calories per gallon for various food items like beef and apples gives you another dimension to the water footprints but that means nothing if you do not know in what quantities those products are grown in California. To do that, you need to have a look at the USDA statistics for each food. Oh, but let's not forget that there are different regions with different drought conditions and times of year for growing. Wait, wait, let's not neglect looking into exports and imports too. Crap, one should compare all of this data for the past few years to get a bit of historical perspective.
I seriously spent two hours investigating this. Learned that two separate experts have calculated that 10-11% of California's agriculture water usage is currently taken up by almonds and that we export a significant quantity of alfalfa from California to other countries so that those countries can feed it to animals for milk and meat. Also, rediscovered how incredibly difficult it is to find, access, and evaluate data on government websites.
In the end, I am reasonably sure a panel of experts would need to do research for weeks before coming up with a real, data-supported strategy for reducing water consumption in California based on changes in the diet of American consumers. Further, I doubt more than a few percentage of Americans would make any changes based on those recommendations. Consumers tend to only change based on emotional and financial pressures. Sort of frustrating, but there it is. Regulations and market forces really seem to be the only full solution. Naturally, government will not move quick enough and the market will resist any changes that cut into profits.
Still. In case you are interested: going vegetarian, eating local, and creating a personal garden would not be a bad idea.
7 Things to Know About California's Drought - Grist.org