There are many different dimensions to statesmanship and we often tend to overlook some of them when others come into focus temporarily. In case of an economic crisis, chances are little that the government is going to devote much time to reshaping the education system. One of the most hidden agendas and overlooked areas of politics, however, are the fields of food and water politics. The ordinary citizen is lenient to think that she is free in making her choices about food. Maybe, many of us might think that governments would not consider our eating habits can be a policy tool. In terms of water politics, the impact of renewable freshwater sources is vastly underrated. In fact, water and food, and the politics around them, are one of the key determinants of nations’ long-term development. In this article, we will explore how these two fundamental aspects of our lives relate to one another and how veganism can add to societal advancement.
While the terms seem to go well together, food and water politics actually delimit separate policy fields. When talking about food politics, we refer to a concept that treats the implementation and quality of food regulation, overall food consumption, food availability and distribution, waste management and the relation between food consumption and public health. Water politics, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with securing renewable water sources and increasing the efficiency of using these sources. The point at which those two policy fields meet is the cost of food in terms of water; this measurement is called virtual water. For example, according to the numbers provided by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the production of 1kg of beef requires the use of approximately 15.000l of freshwater, whereas 1kg of rice requires around 2.500l. Of course, depending on the specifics of the food and its origin, the numbers can vary a bit, but the general idea is to show that our water consumption is directly connected to our food consumption. Moreover, every product can be indicated in the virtual water unit. In order to understand this properly, we can, paradoxically, think about water: according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO), the amount needed to produce 1l of freshwater is 1.500l. How can this be? Well, most of us do not have a spring in our backyard, let alone the equipment to reach down sometimes more than 100 metres. Hence, there are workers that build the equipment to reach the water and workers at such springs, as well as in the distribution line. All of this is considered in the calculation of the virtual water equivalents.
From a political point of view, it quickly becomes clear that the availability of water is a core concern for every state. Although our planet is 97% covered by water, this is mainly salt water and unusable for agriculture and consumption – freshwater sources are extremely scarce. Worldwide, there is an annual renewable amount of freshwater of approximately 43 000 km3/year. The FAO estimates that America has 24.000 m3/year, Europe 9.000 m3/year, Africa 5.000 m3/year and Asia 3.000 m3/year. By simply looking at those numbers, we can immediately see a clear correlation between available water sources and economic development. Of course, we would argue that China, Japan and the Asian Tigers are great economies, despite Asia having less water than other continents, but we must also remember that the water is not equally distributed. The Middle East, Central Asia and great parts of India are among the world’s arid regions, which means that other countries have a significantly higher portion of water to use. Also, it can be argued why the Latin American countries are relatively underdeveloped, although they are apparently in one of the most water-rich regions of the world. Politically, Latin American countries have been long exploited by the United States of America, which under the infamous Monroe Doctrine claimed exclusive economic and political influence over the continent. Although it would be false to assume that water-rich countries are automatically deemed to be economically successful, the annual amount of available water is one of the enabling factors that also define the economic potential.
It follows from the above that water is a significant precondition for a nation’s wealth and many nations struggle to secure enough water. In fact, more than 30 countries in the world are importing more than 50% of their freshwater to match consumption – except for Israel, none of them are among the world’s wealthiest 30 nations. This does not only burden the economy, but also creates political dependency. Many of the conflicts of the 21st are, in reality, struggles over freshwater sources. However, there are also internal policy tools that can be used to improve the water balance within a country – here, food politics comes into play. As mentioned earlier, the water consumption is heavily connected to the food consumption within a country. Therefore, the eating habits of the population are crucially determinant of the water balance and, hence, politicians have an interest to shape food consumption in a way that it becomes less burdensome to the water political side. Remember: a country with scarce water resources can decrease political dependency, as well as economic burdens by becoming more water efficient. Meat, in any form, is one of the most water intensive foods out there. Growing crops for animal feed, water consumption by the animal itself, as well as running the factories and slaughterhouses and logistics are all factors that drive the virtual water equivalent into the skies. Vegetables, on the other hand, are significantly less water intensive!
Now, from a food political perspective there are many tools to direct the population into a less meat-dominated eating habit. In the first place, there is a need to spread greater awareness around the national implications of meat consumption. People are, in general, rather ready to accept nationalist arguments than environmental arguments. Nonetheless, there must also be awareness-raising for the environmental aspects, since it reduces not only water scarcity, but the meat industry also accounts for more than 50% of the global climate change. In fact, the issue has become so pressing that the European Union (EU), the most advanced political system in the history of mankind, is seriously considering taxing meat throughout the EU. Taxing meat producers would have a similarly decreasing effect on meat consumption. Another potential policy is to require public institutions, like schools, hospitals etc. to reduce the amount of meat served in their canteens. There are also many options among soft power tools, like promoting vegetarian and vegan lifestyles through media campaigns – basically, creating a paradigm shift that makes a meat-less lifestyle more attractive. Just as the concept of the same-sex marriage and the abolition of the death penalty were enabled in some countries not only through policy-making, but also through perception management and public diplomacy, the same strategies can be of much value for the vegan agenda that we so desperately need globally.
Water and food politics are important aspects of any political system. They are heavily determined by the geography of the respective country and also exceed considerations of meat consumption – there are many interesting facets to these policy realms. In any case, it is clear, however, that national and global development is severely hampered by our meat consumption. Also, much of the global misery, such as hunger and conflict is caused by water scarcity. Many countries can improve their situation by adopting anti-meat policies. Of course, some countries, due to their geographical properties, are not able to increase agriculture, but if the global water consumption is reduced the price of water for those arid regions also decreases, making it possible for those countries to develop as well. Certainly, populations are seldom very receptive for such policies, but when the larger societal interest is at ‘steak’, there is little room for considering the individual eating freedoms.