This Shocking Infographic Puts The CA Drought In Perspective

Update: The Los Angeles Times has since adjusted these numbers, which you can find here.

The California drought has officially gotten scary. Further complicating the situation is the fact that almost 80% of California's water supply goes to the state's agriculture needs, which in turn goes toward feeding the entire planet. (Did you know that California produces 80% of the world's almonds?) A recent LA Times infographic shows just how much water is used to produce one plate of food (968 gallons). There is also an interactive version, where you can create different plates of food to understand their water impact. 
Photo: Courtesy of The LA Times.
Infographics like this can feel at once illuminating and confusing, so we thought we'd take this opportunity to identify and discuss some of the major takeaways. First, we can see that the biggest water-hog on the plate is the eight-ounce steak, which requires 850 of those 968 gallons of water to produce. Why does meat need so much water? Well, it has to do with the way we feed our livestock. When meat comes from industrial feedlots, the water is fed through irrigation systems used to sustain the animals' grain-based diet (mostly soy and corn). Less water is used for grass-fed and grass-finished beef, which relies on Mother Nature: rain and pasturing.

Why are we telling you this? Well, because the American consumption of beef is more than 37 million tons annually. That's the highest in the world, and that means our water needs are higher, which has a direct impact on this drought. 

So, what can you do? Honestly (and you're probably not going to want to hear this), the very best thing we can do is cut our consumption of meat. Don't kill the messenger, friends! Listen, if cutting out meat entirely or dramatically decreasing your consumption sounds impossible, consider starting with a Meatless Monday. If you are going to eat meat, then your best choice is chicken, which only requires 17 gallons of water per ounce.  Pork, while requiring more water than chicken, is also preferable to beef. Want a compromise? Try making meat a side dish instead of your main, and load up on grain and veggies. 

Speaking of veggies, if you're a vegetarian, you might think that you have nothing to worry about. But, in truth, the crops we all love (fruits, nuts, and vegetables) all come from California, too, and plant-based proteins like beans aren't exactly innocent when it comes to water usage. Chickpeas and lentils clock in shockingly high at over seventy gallons per ounce of food. A good alternative would be choosing dark green vegetables like spinach and broccoli, or whole grains like quinoa and amaranth. Luckily, some foods we love are relatively harmless from a water consumption standpoint. Carrots, pineapples, spinach, tomatoes, strawberries, and others all fall on the thumbs-up list.

That brings us to drinks. Unfortunately, it might also be time to curtail your intake of that beloved California vintage. A bottle of wine takes 56 gallons of water to produce, which is more than any other beverage, including beer. So, if you have the choice between the two, drink beer instead.

Okay, so, less meat, less wine, and more beer. What else? Well, not to throw too much at you at once, but we also need to waste less. This infographic, which recently appeared in The Guardian, points out that, "To meet demand, the world needs to produce more food and waste less so that the total available is 70 to 100% greater by 2050." To give some context to that figure, according to the Plant Physiology journal, "It took some 10,000 years to expand food production to the current level of about 5 billion tons per year. By 2025, we will have to nearly double current production again."

When taken together, these two infographics show that starting now, we'll have to produce more food using less water, and decrease our waste. It might seem like a daunting task, but little changes in our individual habits can lead to big collective results. Here is what I am committing to do: I am going to cook at home whenever possible, bring my lunch to work, and eat out less. (This of course sounds really hard. But a recent report revealed that people can spend $11K to $20K+ per year on Seamless without even realizing it.) When it comes to food waste, I promise to love my leftovers, not just throw them away, and I'm going to learn how to put old food to good use. That's my individual contribution, and it's nothing excessive or dramatic. So, what's yours going to be?