Political Plates: Food and California’s Drought

Sarah Cornett

California’s drought (and that of other western states) isn’t showing signs of improvement. A chronic lack of water has encouraged high temperatures, lowered agricultural production, altered landscapes, and is beginning to demand significant changes in the way we think about water. The Golden State, home to 300 Whitman students, is in danger of becoming forever altered if we don’t take these issues seriously.

Despite our distance, there are many ways all we can fight the drought and its consequences from campus. Shortened showers and fewer loads of laundry are significant steps, but to really decrease water footprints, the numbers indicate that one lifestyle change far surpasses the rest: eating more plants.

California’s drought: the agricultural facts

Thirsty crops like almonds and avocados are often cited as the villains in the fight to conserve water. But when looking at the data, the numbers don’t add up. True, a single almond consumes 1.1 gallons of water before it reaches a jar almond butter, but a pound of beef? It requires between 442 and 8000 gallons. A pound of avocados demands 71 gallons of water, but that doesn’t look bad when compared to the most common dairy products. A pound of cheese stacks up at 900 gallons, and a single gallon of milk requires 1,000.

These numbers are startling, surprising, and serious, especially when one considers that California is the country’s largest producer of food. Water conservation is almost always focused on water we can see. A running tap, sprinklers on the lawn, and dish cycles are made the focus of the state’s official anti-drought efforts, and in our common conceptions of how to save water. But looking at these numbers, it’s clear that our plates can play a significant role.

Food restrictions as political choices

Food and our choices regarding it have entered the political sphere in recent years. Increased awareness about what we eat, what it does to our bodies, and the environmental and human costs involved in producing it have become common concerns and topics of media obsession, especially among younger people. Specificity and restrictions in our meals and snackage prove that our generation takes its food very seriously.

What’s been called the ‘millennial food obsession’ has received plenty of pushback and skepticism. Pundits point to it as further evidence of a “me” culture among young people, especially wealthy ones who can afford to be selective and picky.

These choices (paleo, plant-based, gluten-free, etc.) are usually thought of as being motivated by health concerns and allergies. But food preferences can clearly have political and environmental effects. Changing the way we think about lifestyles like veganism- framing them as political and environmental choices rather than ones for personal health- can make them as less absolutist, and more conscious.

A call for a full conversion to a plant-based lifestyle isn’t a realistic ask (we know that food preferences are often seriously ingrained). Instead, an important step is an awareness of how our food choices affect our environment and surroundings. Simply forgoing that hamburger in favor of a veggie patty, or opting for hummus to go with your crackers instead of cheese, can easily shave off hundreds of water-footprint gallons each day. While a vegan diet would do the most work, making small steps by substituting a few plant-based foods each day is clearly significant.

Earlier this year, Jerry Brown asked Californians reduce their daily water intake by 47 gallons. His recommendations were familiar: shortening a shower, turning off the faucet, limiting laundry cycles. But those 47 gallons could be shaved-off easily if we take a close look at the industry that itself demands 47 percent of the state’s water: animal agriculture.