Billboard Activism: Exposing the Truth about California’s Water Shortage by Jack Schwada

California-based vegan artist-activist Karen Fiorito recently launched a billboard campaign to inform residents of the Golden State about how much water goes into the animal products they consume every day. Fiorito hopes that by highlight- ing numbers she believes will be “shocking” to many Californians, they will begin to think twice about their next meals and reduce their consumption of animal products.

IMG_2541Fiorito believes this could help conserve water in California which is in the midst of its worst record- ed drought and has been in a government-declared state of emergency since the beginning of 2014.

According to Oakland-based think tank, the Pacific Institute, 47% of water used in the state is linked to the production of meat and dairy products.

“It’s amazing how little discussion there is about animal agriculture’s water use in California,” Fiorito says. “This industry is the biggest consumer of water here, but many people don’t know this. And that’s a big reason why I decided to launch this campaign.”

One explanation for animal agriculture’s massive water footprint is that animal products require huge amounts of water to produce. Based on an estimate referenced by the US Geological Survey and the National Park Service, one quarter pound of beef (a hamburger) requires 1,300 gallons of water to produce. By contrast, Dutch scientists have found that a soy-based burger of the same size and with more protein requires only 42 gallons of water to produce.

California Governor Jerry Brown publicly acknowledged animal agriculture’s role in draining the state’s water resources in June. During an interview about the drought and the future of California, he said, “If you ask me, I think you should be eating veggie burgers.” His comments did not generate substantial media coverage.

Furthermore, Brown’s currently mandated conservation efforts focus entirely on residential water use. In April, he ordered mandatory cuts of 25% to address the current crisis. Californians have exceeded expectations by cutting residential con- sumption by 27%, 31%, and 27% in the months of June, July, and August respectively.

However, these seemingly encouraging numbers don’t accurately reflect the realities on the ground.

“The problem is that residential water use accounts for only 4% of overall water use in California,” Fiorito explained. “So while a 31% cut does seem pretty substantial, in reality, it only amounts to a reduction of around 1.25% of overall use. That’s not going make a difference, and we need to let Californians know that.”

Despite the ineffectiveness of current conservation efforts, Fiorito has managed to find a positive message amongst all the numbers. This data shows me that Californians are willing to make changes,” she says. “I was motivated before, but I’m even more so now because I’m convinced that once Californians get the facts, they will take steps that could really help us conserve water.”

However, the problem of animal-agriculture’s water consumption in California goes beyond the state’s borders. In 2012 alone, the Golden State exported around 1.5 trillion gallons of water to other states and even other countries in the form of meat and dairy products as well as animal feed.

“I want to start the conversation about animal agriculture and its water use here in California,” Fiorito explains. “But with current exports we need to take this conversation beyond our borders as well to address our crisis.”

Fiorito is convinced that her message will eventually reach other states and countries as water scarci- ty becomes more common. According to the US Drought Monitor, over 30% of the United States is in some condition of drought today and according to the World Resources Institute, 20% of all countries in the world will face acute water shortages by 2040. Fiorito’s billboards will highlight the amount of water required to produce everyday animal products using easy-to-understand graphics. The billboards will also help Californians put these numbers into perspective by comparing how much water is used to produce animal products and how little is used to flush toilets, take showers, and do laundry. The billboard campaign started in Los Angeles in early November with twelve boards throughout the city. Fiorito hopes to attract enough attention and funding to move her campaign to San Francisco, San Diego, and other major cities in California with the recycled boards moving to a different city each month.

The corresponding website engages viewers through an interactive water footprint calculator with which users to find out how much water goes into producing their favorite foods. Fiorito believes California can lead the way to a national and, one day, international movement towards water sustainability for the planet.

Editor’s note: When significantly lower water-use figures for meat production are seen, they do not include water used for growing feed crops and may subtract water used in animal agriculture that might be recovered through the water cycle. But even using the lower figures is proof it is more efficient to eat plant foods.

The dry California climate also results in higher water use to produce meat and dairy than is the national average.

Jack Schwada is the Public Relations Manager for Got Drought? The organization was founded by Karen Fiorito and has received funding from The Pollination Project and A Well Fed World. Got Drought? continues to seek further funding and contributions in order to expand the size and reach of its campaign.

Published in American Vegan Magazine, 16—1, WINTER 2016, pgs. 24 – 25

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