Meat the Water Thief

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A review of the headlines on UN World Water Day this Spring, could have given a false impression of the state of water on our planet, on which all life depends.  Deadly flooding from Cyclone Idai in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, and in the US midwest farm belt suggested our biggest challenge was too much water.

But the global outlook is just the reverse.  More than 70% of the global population (4.3 billion people) experience moderate to severe water scarcity for at least part of the year. Fresh water is not distributed evenly. More than 1.1 billion people do not have access to clean drinking water.  China and India have more than one-third of the world’s population yet only 11% of its freshwater. And the head of the British Environment Agency said that even the famously rainy UK could run short of water in 25 years.  

Global water use is already near the maximum that can be sustained without supplies shrinking to dangerously low levels.   Global warming, increasing populations and the need for more food will make this situation worse.

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Annual water use has increased 600% in the last 100 years and 33% of the planet’s biggest groundwater systems are in danger of running dry.

Where is it all going?   Most water is used to produce what we eat and what we wear. Agriculture is responsible for 70% of annual water withdrawals, and one-third is related to animal products.  Meat production, alone, has increased 400% in the last 50 years and it has a huge thirst for water.

“The production of meat requires and pollutes huge amounts of water, particularly in the production of animal feed,”  according to the journal, “Water Resources and Industry”.

Meat production is also highly inefficient.  The average vegetable needs 322 litres of water to produce 1 kg of food.  Pork requires 6,000 litres of water, and beef requires an astonishing 15,400 litres of water to produce 1 kg of meat.   

Also much of the water in the food production process is wasted e.g., through inefficient irrigation techniques and food wastage.  This is exacerbated by the fact farmers in most countries do not pay the full cost of the water they use, according to the OECD.  

The impact does not stop there.  The World Resources Institute says that agriculture’s growing thirst for water will squeeze supplies for municipal use, energy production and manufacturing. 


The other half of the equation is water pollution. “Water pollution from unsustainable agricultural practices poses a serious risk to human health and the planet’s ecosystems,“ states the FAO and the International Water Management Institute.   And they said the biggest source of water pollution in many countries is agriculture, not cities or industry.

The rapid industrialization of animal agriculture has accelerated the problem and it has also not been required to develop robust abatement systems to address it. According to the Pacific Institute, 80% of the world’s wastewater is discharged into rivers, streams and oceans without any treatment.  

Animal feed production and factory farming methods are the major contributors.  Pollution comes in two flavours: nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers and animal manure, and eutrophication (rapid growth of algae and water plants leading to lack of oxygen and dead zones) in bodies of water caused by excess nutrients and organic matter, animal manure, and leftover feed and crop residues.  And, according to the FAO, factory farming has introduced a new class of pollutants: antibiotics, vaccines and hormones which also end up in watercourses. 

The problem is particularly acute in China.  Already struggling with water shortages in its northern regions, China has been building a multi-billion-dollar system of water diversion canals to funnel scarce water to the increasingly arid north. But what of the water quality?  A recent study of factory farms in China documents the water pollution from the rapid growth of these operations.  In 2000, depending on the region, between 30 and 70% of manure from factory farms was discharged directly into rivers.  Half of all pigs globally are in China, about 700 million animals.   This is clearly unsustainable.

Factory farming operations throughout the world are a source of pollution to varying degrees and most feature huge sewage lagoons for the storage but not treatment of millions of gallons of animal waste, volumes that cannot be safely spread onto crop land.   And these lagoons are prone to leakage into groundwater and flooding.

What can we do? The head of the FAO Land and Water Division sums up the challenge succinctly, “we must produce more food with less water.” But how?

World Resources Institute suggests:
1. Better soil and water management practices
2. Reduce food waste and loss
3. Reduce meat consumption 
4. Shift to healthier (and less water-intensive) foods 

The FAO suggests:
1. Encourage people to adopt more sustainable diets (through taxes and subsidies)
2. Limit increases in demand for food with a large environmental footprint (through taxes and subsidies) 
3. Reduce food waste

So, when we’re hungry for our next meal, we should consider how thirsty is the food we put on our plate.

Sources: FAO, World Resources Institute, “Water Resources and Industry” (journal), Pacific Institute, “Environment Research Letters” (journal), OECD.

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