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Save water, go vegetarian 

A diet that doesn't include animal protein could be more sustainable for the future

Editor’s note: Included in this commentary are numbers associated with agricultural water use. That information was sourced from a variety of sources: Worldwatch Institute, The New York Times, the Grace Communications Institute, the Water Foundation Network, National Geographic, Mother Jones, the Pacific Institute, and

We know that we have a mega drought in California. It is incumbent that all effective water conservation measures be taken to meet this monumental challenge. It is a civic duty of all those segments of society that can make significant contributions in finding a viable solution to the water shortage problem to do all they can.

An efficient and efficacious problem-solving process starts with the necessary step involving diagnosis; a correct diagnosis identifies the root cause of the problem. The most effective remedial actions, to correct the situation, target the identified cause. Otherwise, no matter what measures are taken, and how much energy and effort are exerted, the problem would remain, continually becoming more severe, and ultimately ruinous.

The importance of diagnosis to find the cause of a problem can be illustrated by a simple example. Let us assume you come home after playing tennis. First you take a shower and then carry your dirty laundry to the washing machine. The washing machine has just enough space for your clothes. To give a pleasant surprise to your mother, you diligently measure the right amount of laundry detergent, pour it into the washing machine, and then push the start button. Feeling justifiably proud of having done a deed beyond the call of duty, you go to the kitchen because doing all that heavy laundry work has made you a bit hungry. There is a loaf of bread on the kitchen counter. You open the refrigerator door to see what is there to make a sandwich. Fortunately, there is some cheese. You take the cheese and grab a can of soda. When you are about to close the refrigerator door, you luckily happen to notice a hamburger package in the back. A cheeseburger sounds much better than a cheese sandwich. You take out of the package just the right amount to make 1/4-pound patty.

Before continuing, let us make sure we understand meaning of the term “water footprint.” Water footprint is the amount of freshwater one uses, plus the additional water required for production of all goods and services one consumes. The water footprint of each event mentioned above is shown below:

  • • 7-minute shower (2 gallons per minute)    14 gallons
  • • Washing machine    35 gallons
  • • Soda    46 gallons
  • • Cheese sandwich    56 gallons
  • • 1/4-pound hamburger    450 gallons

The diagnosis clearly identifies beef as the culprit, which has by far the largest water footprint.

According to Parkinson’s Law of Trivialities, organizations give disproportionate weight (attention) to trivial issues, rather than more difficult and complex underlying problems. Our policy makers at all levels seem to be living examples of Parkinson’s Law of Trivialities. We have been misled to believe that by conserving water in our daily usage, we can make a notable difference in alleviating the problems caused by drought. What a bunch of crap—a con job of the highest professional order!

It is not to suggest that we should discontinue conserving water. Water is a finite natural resource, and every drop counts. The important point however is that no matter how much we conserve in our daily usage, it won’t even make a small dent. The result would be too minuscule to be noticeable. The amount of water required to produce 1/4-pound of beef is equal to the amount needed to take showers for 32 days; the amount of water required to produce 3 pounds of beef (1/4-pound patty consumed every month) is enough to shower daily for almost one year and 21 days.

Since it takes a lot of water to produce beef, a fraction of that water can be used to produce a lot more food with much lower water footprint. Americans’ heavy consumption of beef has not gone unnoticed. Prince Charles remarked, “Eating the amount of beef that Americans do at over 60 pounds annually is exhausting our resources, and is unsustainable.” Ironically, none of our own politicians has made a similar statement; the beef industry has deep pockets and powerful lobbyists in Washington.

Here are some important facts not commonly known: According to the Pacific Institute, agriculture consumes 80 percent of California water, yet it contributes only 2 percent to California’s gross domestic product. Residential and commercial usage account for only 14 percent and 6 percent of the total California water respectively.

Production of meat, dairy, poultry, and nuts are quite water intensive, and so are alfalfa, soybeans, and corn used to feed and fatten cattle. Shown below is the amount of water required to produce just 1 pound of the respective product.

  • • Beef    1,800 gallons
  • • Pork    576 gallons
  • • Chicken    468 gallons
  • • Soybeans    206 gallons
  • • Corn    147 gallons

Below is some more information about the amount of water required to produce one unit of each product shown.

  • • Egg    53 gallons
  • • Walnut    5 gallons
  • • Almond    1 gallon

California, one of country’s driest states, produces a large part of country’s beef, milk, nuts, vegetables, fruit, and wine. A 2012 research study by Mesfin Mekonnen and Arjen Hoekstra concluded that that production of 1 ton of beef has water footprint of 4 million gallons. For comparison, the water footprint of the same amount of sugar beets, vegetables, and starchy roots is 52,000; 85,000; and 102,200 gallons respectively.

Alfalfa is a used as a supplement to pasture grass in beef production. According to the Pacific Institute, it consumes more water than any other crop in California. Alfalfa hay is a feed source for factory-farmed cows raised for dairy production. According to The New York Times Alfalfa is grown on more than 1 million acres in California. Large corporations in the agriculture industry are exporting, in the form of alfalfa, 100 billion gallons of water annually to Asian countries, mainly to China. In essence, California is exporting its water not only to the rest of the country but also to many foreign countries. As stated earlier, to produce just one almond, it takes 1 gallon of water. Ten percent of the total California water is used for just growing almonds. Again, 65 percent of almonds produced are exported to China and European countries.

Recently, NASA scientist Jay Famiglietti described the calamitous situation facing the state to the LA Times: “California has about one year of water left.” Let us get rid of the smokescreen to get a clear understanding of what is happening: In the middle of a historic mega-drought, California produces the most water-intensive agricultural products, exports them to other states and other countries for a negligible 2 percent contribution to the state’s gross domestic product, while telling the state residents to take shorter showers and not flush their toilets too often. There is only one word to describe this situation: stupid.

Despite all the nonsense going on, we personally can do something which would leave a smaller water footprint and also make us healthier. That requires making changes to our diet. A Cornell study on protein found that producing 1 pound of animal protein requires 100 times more water than producing 1 pound of grain protein. A desirable change in diet would include more vegetables, whole grains, beans, legume, roots, and fruit. To reduce environmental footprint, it is necessary to reduce, or ideally eliminate, animal products, dairy products, eggs, nuts, and all processed food.

“Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet,” stated Albert Einstein.

Let us do our part, even if the policy makers are embodiment of Parkinson’s Law of Trivialities. A quote from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, written in 1601, applies to each of them perfectly, “He is a heavy eater of beef. Methinks it doth harm to his wit.”


Zaf Iqbal is past associate dean and professor emeritus of accounting at Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business. He volunteers with several nonprofit organizations, including Wilshire Hospice, Good Neighbor Program, and Child Development Resource Center of the Central Coast. He’s past president of the San Luis Obispo Democratic Club. Send comments to the editor at

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