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Do Personal Food Choices Affect the Drought In California?

Not really, but you should still be ashamed about eating water-hogging foods.
(Photo: Kevin Cortopassi/Flickr)

(Photo: Kevin Cortopassi/Flickr)

When the media first started covering the California drought it did so from the perspective of the specific foods we eat. Given that 80 percent of the state’s water is used for agriculture, this would seem to make sense. Mother Jones crusaded against the water-hogging impact of nuts, especially almonds. Michael Pollan, seizing on an illuminating Los Angeles Times infographic, took to Twitter and declared California lentils verboten. I highlighted the disproportionate share of the state’s water consumed by beef and dairy, specifically the alfalfa crop that helps sustain these industries.

The obvious benefit of this approach is that it empowers consumers. As a consumer, I feel good about not eating beef and a little guilty about the almond milk in my fridge. I feel compelled to purchase lentils from France but comforted by the fact that beer has a relatively low water footprint. I agree that much of the produce grown in the Central and Imperial Valleys should be grown in the Midwest, but until that happens (don’t hold your breath), I’m motivated to make concrete choices that address California’s water crisis. Hard data about specific foods helps me do this.

Shaming, when done right, can not only affect behavioral change; it can usher a larger ethic into the public sphere in a way that forces us to collectively appreciate its gravity.

A potential downside of this approach is that, once we know the water footprint of specific commodities, things can get personal. #DroughtShaming has emerged not only to embarrass neighbors who waste water on lawns and car washes, but to turn grocery aisles into halls of judgment. “Amid the Drought, Cue the Almond Shaming,” reads one headline. Not that anyone should go overboard with this tactic, but it may not be such a bad thing to play on our moral knowledge in ways that are overtly judgmental of others and ourselves. Did I give the skunk eye to a woman wearing an Earth Day shirt buying a cut of Niman beef at Whole Foods the other day? Might have. Did I spend extra time trying to find spinach sourced from a Colorado farm? Sure did. Did I feel righteous about these little virtue performances? Absolutely.

Did any of it matter? Technically speaking, no. Whether I—or any individual consumer—give up almonds or beef or lentils makes no measurable difference in California’s water crisis. Even collective action might have only a minuscule impact under such circumstances.

Consider vegetarians and vegans. Touting the effectiveness of their advocacy, they like to point out that meat consumption in the United States is dropping. What they fail to note is that it’s rising precipitously across the globe, more than offsetting the impact of their at-home heroism. Similarly, if every consumer in the U.S. stopped drinking California milk, it wouldn’t make a substantial dent in alfalfa production. Much of California’s alfalfa, after all, is exported out of state (and over 30 percent to China). We cannot, no matter how right we may be, flap our wings and cause a tsunami on the other side of the world.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make a statement out of our food choices. Making ethical consumer decisions based on hard data about specific commodities is about more than achieving immediate empirical impact. Shaming, when done right, can not only affect behavioral change; it can usher a larger ethic—in this case, water conservation—into the public sphere in a way that forces us to collectively appreciate its gravity.

Meat consumption might be rising exponentially in China, but it’s doing so in a context that, due to the work of animal advocates, is far less accommodating than it has ever been. Getting into nudge grudge matches over almonds or beef or lentils or chickpeas or whatever may seem trivial to those who consider California’s water crisis as strictly a policy issue. But these battles add up to a war. They make food politics personal and, in so doing, ensure that public engagement is ready to mobilize in support of the most effective and far-reaching policy solutions to help the state save water.

If coverage of California’s drought began with the water footprint of certain foods, it has since spanned out to cover the public policies and historical traditions that shape the state’s water distribution system. This necessary transition has yielded several impressive analyses (see here, here, and here). But what’s concerning about this shift is not that it’s happening—it must and should happen—but that it accepts the premise that, when it comes to questions of water policy, individual behavior is largely irrelevant.

#DroughtShaming has emerged not only to embarrass neighbors who waste water on lawns and car washes, but to turn grocery aisles into halls of judgment.

Passages such as this one, from Mark Bittman, are completely correct: “Properly managed, there is more than enough water for everything important. Improperly managed, as it has been for more than 100 years, there is a crisis.” But it excludes consumers. It shifts the burden of action from the individual in the grocery aisle to disembodied “managers.” The moral outrage that might underscore their effort to turn the battleship—an outrage sustained by the politics of personal choice and the shaming it inspires—is snuffed out.

And the result can be bad. When an ecological problem—and its perceived solution—is elevated beyond the reach of individual behavior, the outcome is personal apathy. In a recent New Yorker essay, Jonathan Franzen, discussing bird conservation, observed how concrete solutions that would save birds in the here and now—boring but effective moves like requiring large buildings to use patterned glass to reduce accidental bird deaths—are being ignored in order to emphasize the threat of climate change on future bird populations. But, as Franzen writes, “Climate change is everyone’s fault—in other words, no one’s.”

If California’s water crisis is similarly abstracted to become no one’s crisis—least of all the person buying beef—we can hardly expect the bureaucrats who allowed this problem to happen in the first place to fix it.

That would be a shame.

The Things We Eat is a regular Pacific Standard column from James McWilliams on food, agriculture, and the American diet.