Maria was shocked.
As we chatted on the phone, I pointed out that a burger takes 450 gallons of water to produce while a plant-based one only takes two. She looked out at the browning grass in front of her LA home and said, “I think I’ll have a plant-based burger tonight!”
Maria got it.
I have been having a lot of conversations like this lately, with individuals and large groups, through everyday chats, articles, and classes. The idea that we discuss is very simple: the connection between what we eat and the climate—in this case, the drought in California and other Southwestern states—we are living in right now.
That connection is easily forgotten when we are so far from the production of our food. And it is even easier when any number of interest groups actively aid and encourage our forgetting. Amidst the tumult we experience all around us—economic anxiety, political turmoil, societal unrest, a global pandemic, and war in Ukraine—it is easy to see why connecting our diet and our climate falls off the radar.
We do a disservice to ourselves, the life that is larger than ourselves, and future generations, if we forget. Recently the Washington Post ran an important piece linking the ongoing destruction of the Amazon, sometimes referred to as the world’s lungs, to the meat consumption by Americans. The forest is cleared to create land to feed the cattle to then feed Americans their meat. Similarly, growing crops like alfalfa to feed cattle uses more than 10 million acre-feet of water in California in an average year. Compare this with all the people in California who use 8.6 million acre-feet a year. (An acre foot is more than enough water to supply two households for one year.) We use more water for cattle feed than we do for our homes.
We simply cannot ignore this connection any longer. Climate change is the greatest crisis humankind has ever faced, and as Jonathan Safran Foer notes in We Are The Weather, we must either let some eating habits go or let the planet go. We can’t have both.
As in many religious and Indigenous traditions, rain has deep practical and symbolic weight in Judaism, and has been viewed as a sign of divine beneficence/blessing. The great medieval scholar and community leader Maimonides, reflecting earlier sources, teaches that the lack of rain was often caused by moral shortcomings, and therefore the drought was a prompt to each individual to review their actions.
Similarly, this drought should spark reflections on our diets and lead us to take action at such a critical time. While interventions like recycling, solar panels, and electric cars are good steps, both on an individual and communal level, we make the greatest contribution to addressing our climate crisis by changing what we eat and the food our institutions serve.
The connection between meat and environmental issues go far beyond water. Consider, for example, that on average a cow produces 220 lbs of methane a year, a powerful and destructive greenhouse gas. According to Project Drawdown, if all of the world’s cattle formed their own nation, they would be the planet’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, second only to the United States and China. For the sake of the world we live in right now, let alone the one our children will inherit, we must pay much greater attention to our diet.
At this time of year, we celebrate the birth of the world and reflect on who we have been and wish to be. An oft repeated midrash teaches that God created the world by looking into the Torah as an architect would a blueprint. Creation, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches, is contingent upon Torah: the world’s very existence depends human’s acceptance of our moral responsibility.
This acceptance means questioning dietary choices that threaten life on a planetary scale. Our lawns and our diets are bound together in an interconnected web. Animal agriculture, and red meat in particular, require a huge amount of water such that each brown lawn begs the question: is a hamburger really worth this?