From the NASA headline “One More Year of Water,” to timers in the Ujamaa showers where I now live, reminders of the drought in our state are everywhere. All around campus we are being told to do our part and find ways to reduce water consumption in our everyday activities. During the drought, it’s reasonable to expect people to help out by taking shorter showers, refraining from watering lawns, holding off on the car wash. But the reality is that these changes in habit only have a small impact on the state water system when the agricultural sector consumes about 80% of the water for human consumption in California. With a large portion of that water going to raising animals for food, Stanford students should be environmental pioneers during this drought and set a good example to other top universities by making a call for Meatless Mondays.
The drought has illuminated how wasteful it is to produce many products people love to eat. For example it takes 1,900 gallons of water produce a pound of almonds, so it is reasonable to ask people to stop eating almonds during the drought. However, people’s eating habits rarely are questioned during times of scarcity. Almonds are not the only crop guilty of consuming large quantities of water. Coffee and olive oil are also water guzzlers, but very few people have large amounts of coffee, olive oil or almonds at every meal, every day. The water it takes to grow crops for direct human consumption is low compared to the water it takes to raise animals for food. Since the meat industry consumes the most water in the agricultural sector, should people start eating less meat during because of the drought?
Although raising meat for human consumption is a more water-intensive process than growing crops for a plant-based diet, many people have chosen not to alter their eating habits in response to the extended California drought. This is evident even on the Stanford campus in a recent Daily article on student push back against Meatless Mondays in dining halls and houses around campus. While it is understandable that students don’t want reduced choice in the meal plans they are spending thousands of dollars on, Meatless Mondays may be the most effective way to quickly reduce water consumption on campus.
On average, it takes about 1,800 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. And while chicken does much better at 500 gallons per pound, compared to pasta (200 gallons per pound) or tofu (300 gallons per pound), meat is a much less efficient use of water in the agricultural industry. With initiatives like Meatless Mondays, a large purchaser, like Stanford, could quickly reduce its water footprint .
Change on campus is possible without initiatives like Meatless Mondays. Many people are aware of the individual impact they can have on the drought and choose to reduce their meat consumption for the environmental benefits. Stanford purchases food in accordance to what is being consumed in the dining halls and could choose to order less meat if there is a decrease in meat demand from enough students. The decrease in demand would eventually be reflected in Stanford’s purchases, and Stanford’s water footprint would shrink. But the drought is happening now, and changing habits is urgent. By partnering with Stanford Dining, the Stanford community could have a positive impact faster.
By participating in Meatless Monday, Stanford would put pressure on its suppliers and reduce the demand for meat products. This would encourage meat suppliers to reduce their herds and, by extension, Stanford’s water impact on California. But the dining halls won’t do so without the support of the students. Meatless Mondays should be considered equivalent to taking a shorter shower — a necessary sacrifice during the state of emergency brought on by the drought. If California is going to reduce its water consumption by 25 percent, changing what types of foods are being produced and consumed must play a major role.
Reducing meat consumption does not mean that every student should be a vegetarian. Dining halls should continue serving a variety of meat, even inefficient water consumers like beef. Meat is an important part of people’s cultural upbringing as well as a convenient, tasty way of getting essential nutrients like protein and iron. However, meat at every meal is not necessary nutritionally with the increased prevalence of meat and protein alternatives in dining halls across campus.
As temporary and permanent California residents, Stanford students all have something to gain by being environmental stewards during the drought. Small changes can go a long way to reduce one’s water footprint. Other schools around the country have already initiated Meatless Mondays programs recognizing the health and environmental benefits it has for their students and the surrounding community.
Contact Asha Brundage-Moore at ashab1 ‘at’ stanford.edu.