With the severity of the drought in California, there has been a lot of talk about the water footprint of the foods that we eat. The water footprint is the amount of water it takes to produce a certain food. For example, to produce one kilogram of beef it takes almost 15,500 liters of water.
In California, almonds have gotten the majority of the bad press, as has the meat and dairy industry, which are dependent on water-intensive alfalfa. Ethical eaters have in turn been challenged to think seriously about the impact of what they eat, this time in regards to the water footprint of their favorite foods.
But how much does it all really matter? Does opting out of almond milk and a hamburger do any good in the grand scheme of things?
As James McWilliams writes in Pacific Standard, overall even if we all stopped buying almond butter and cut out dairy from our diets, it wouldn’t necessarily make a measurable difference in California’s water crisis. Same goes for meat, as much of the alfalfa produced in California gets shipped across the ocean to China. “Making ethical consumer decisions based on hard data about specific commodities is about more than achieving immediate empirical impact.” As McWilliams goes on to write, “When an ecological problem—and its perceived solution—is elevated beyond the reach of individual behavior, the outcome is personal apathy.”
If the problem feels like it’s completely out of our hands, does it them absolve us from trying to do anything about it?
Apathy is in fact our worst enemy. As Charles de Montesquieu once said, “The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.” If we want to push for change then we must combat apathy.
When policymakers put the responsibility on individuals, it gets them out of taking action, and putting better policies in place. It’s easy to put the blame on individuals instead of doing the hard work. But a better world isn’t just the sum of a bunch of individual efforts; it’s a sum of individual and infrastructural change. And in making personal change, we create enough noise that infrastructural change becomes a reality. Just look at how much water scarcity is now a part of the American consciousness.
It might seem insignificant to change our diets based upon water footprint, but we have to do it anyway. Because making change is part of a larger fight, one that does in fact have a greater impact on policy change. Opting for a meat- and dairy-free meal once, or twice, or even three times a week, might not directly change what’s happening in California, but ultimately, the only thing that we have control over is what’s on the plate in front of us. If we don’t make ethical eating decisions, then we certainly have lost the battle; and in a food world that’s more and more threatened by climate change, change isn’t an option, it’s a necessity.
Eating ethically means knowing our food, it means understanding the problem, and it means not choosing a certain food just because it’s the latest trendy healthy thing to eat. Water footprint is but one of the factors that we should consider when we eat, and there’s no denying that makes eating ethically an overwhelming task. But the more personal choices we make, the more power that we have, at least in our immediate surroundings. You might not cut out almonds completely, but you might find more balance in the types of nuts and seeds that you eat. You might think twice about making guacamole from avocados every single night of the week. You might opt for something that’s produced more locally.
But our world needs a lot of change, and giving up isn’t an option. Eating better, for those of us who have the ability to do so, is the way forward.
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This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at www.foodieunderground.com.