As California experiences the worst drought on record, people often think about shutting off the water while brushing their teeth or taking shorter showers. While those habits are important to conserve water, there's a looming elephant in the room — or, more accurately, a pig, chicken, and cow in the room. What we eat plays a large role in the amount of water we use.
Take pork. The total water footprint of pork at a typical US factory farm is nearly three times larger than the average global water footprint required to grow the equivalent amount of grains, and it's about fourteen times larger than vegetables. That water goes to grow corn, soy, and other crops to feed 100 million pigs nationwide.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, animal agriculture is "one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global." It is a key contributor to climate change, deforestation, water pollution, and water use.
A recent peer-reviewed study found that animal agriculture makes up about one-third of global agricultural water use. And in terms of protein, the water footprint for beef is six times bigger than it is for legumes, and it's one and a half times larger for chicken, eggs, and milk.
Making matters worse, farm animal populations have increased by almost 10,000 percent in recent decades: In 1950, American agriculture involved roughly 100 million land animals, whereas today, that number is more than 9 billion.
The good news is that we don't have to wait for policymakers or for industrial animal agribusinesses to make changes. Individual choices matter. Perhaps the easiest — and tastiest — way to conserve water is practicing the Three Rs: "reducing" or "replacing" consumption of animal products and "refining" our diets by choosing products from sources that adhere to higher animal welfare standards.
Countless Americans are catching onto this concept, and are participating in "Meatless Monday," a popular international movement created by the US government during World War I and revived in 2003 with backing from the Monday Campaigns and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Overproduction and overconsumption of animals is draining the world's water supply, but together we can change that — one bite, one meal, one Meatless Monday at a time.