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Earth Science

Meat Makes Our Planet Thirsty 545

Posted by samzenpus
from the water-dissolving-and-water-removing dept.
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Mames McWilliams writes in the NYT that with California experiencing one of its worst droughts on record, attention has naturally focused on the water required to grow popular foods such as walnuts, broccoli, lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries, almonds and grapes. 'Who knew, for example, that it took 5.4 gallons to produce a head of broccoli, or 3.3 gallons to grow a single tomato? This information about the water footprint of food products — that is, the amount of water required to produce them — is important to understand, especially for a state that dedicates about 80 percent of its water to agriculture.' But for those truly interested in lowering their water footprint, those numbers pale next to the water required to fatten livestock. Beef turns out to have an overall water footprint of roughly four million gallons per ton produced (PDF). By contrast, the water footprint for "sugar crops" like sugar beets is about 52,000 gallons per ton; for vegetables it's 85,000 gallons per ton; and for starchy roots it's about 102,200 gallons per ton.

There's also one single plant that's leading California's water consumption and it's one that's not generally cultivated for humans: alfalfa. Grown on over a million acres in California, alfalfa sucks up more water than any other crop in the state. And it has one primary destination: cattle. 'If Californians were eating all the beef they produced, one might write off alfalfa's water footprint as the cost of nurturing local food systems. But that's not what's happening. Californians are sending their alfalfa, and thus their water, to Asia.' Alfalfa growers are now exporting some 100 billion gallons of water a year from this drought-ridden region to the other side of the world in the form of alfalfa.

Beef eaters are already paying more. Water-starved ranches are devoid of natural grasses that cattle need to fatten up so ranchers have been buying supplemental feed at escalating prices or thinning their herds to stretch their feed dollars. But McWilliams says that in the case of agriculture and drought, there's a clear and accessible actions most citizens can take: Changing one's diet to replace 50 percent of animal products with edible plants like legumes, nuts and tubers results in a 30 percent reduction in an individual's food-related water footprint. Going vegetarian reduces that water footprint by almost 60 percent. 'It's seductive to think that we can continue along our carnivorous route, even in this era of climate instability. The environmental impact of cattle in California, however, reminds us how mistaken this idea is coming to seem.'"
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Meat Makes Our Planet Thirsty

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  • Alfalfa (Score:5, Informative)

    by jamesl (106902) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:04AM (#46444513)

    Alfalfa is used to feed dairy cattle that produce ... dairy ... used to make cheese, yogurt and other products. Alfalfa is not fed to beef cattle.

  • Oblig XKCD (recent) (Score:5, Informative)

    by scorp1us (235526) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:11AM (#46444567) Journal

    Land Mammals [xkcd.com]

  • Re:Alfalfa (Score:3, Informative)

    by rmdingler (1955220) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:12AM (#46444571)
    Beef cattle are fed grain at the auction lot to fast fatten them for conversion to burgers, but many/most ranchers I know use both coastal and alfalfa hay to supplement what nature provides on the range.
  • "Exporting" water? (Score:3, Informative)

    by T.E.D. (34228) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:21AM (#46444657)

    now exporting some 100 billion gallons of water a year

    Can someone explain to me how this sentence even makes sense? It seems to imply that the sate is somehow losing water forever by shipping it abroad. But when the water is consumed, whether in China or California, it will eventually make its way back out into the Pacific Ocean, which is the ultimate source for all of California's water. So once the water is used to grow a crop, for the purpose of California's future wetness, it doesn't really matter one iota where the crop ultimately gets consumed.

  • by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Monday March 10, 2014 @10:02AM (#46444995) Homepage Journal

    Can someone explain to me how this sentence even makes sense? It seems to imply that the sate is somehow losing water forever by shipping it abroad. But when the water is consumed, whether in China or California, it will eventually make its way back out into the Pacific Ocean, which is the ultimate source for all of California's water. So once the water is used to grow a crop, for the purpose of California's future wetness, it doesn't really matter one iota where the crop ultimately gets consumed.

    Even with all the rain that's fallen on California lately, we are still years of rain like this away from aquifer replenishment. This coupled with next year's El Nino may set back the complete inviability of the inland empire several years, but it's still coming because of our water use strategies. In short, water rights have become "use it or lose it" so people not using their water allotment are having their water rights taken away, down to their current usage. Fail to use the water for just one year, see what happens. So they're using the water to grow crap crops, or just pumping it and then selling it [illlegally] and the water goes someplace else to grow grapes or pot.

    We are running out of useful water.

    There are a number of approaches we might use to solve this problem. The one I favor is cutting off SoCal and letting them fuck off. Sadly, Los Angeles receives enough yearly rainfall to cover 100% of its needs in many years, but something like 99% of it runs straight into the ocean because that whole area is just one big sandbox.

  • Re:Alfalfa (Score:5, Informative)

    by Sique (173459) on Monday March 10, 2014 @10:05AM (#46445009) Homepage
    You seem to misunderstand the "consumption of water" concept used in the article. If you irrigate an arid region like California, you increase the amount of water evaporating. Since evaporated water can't be used anymore, it is lost for local production (except you create some big ass industry to get evaporated water back from air). That's why in the case of an arid region, we really have water consumption (e.g. less water than before), other than in a humid region, where there is a surplus of water from rainfall compared with the possible evaporation, and thus any water used can be recycled or replaced by fresh water.

    When the article talks about "exporting water", it actually means that this water used to grow the alfalfa is lost for any other uses, because it is long evaporated. It's not the actual water that gets exported to China (except if the wind blows the vapor to China where it adds to local rainfalls), it's the consumption of water necessary to actually grow enough alfalfa to export it.

    The main question is: Where does the water California is watering its crops come from, and what will California do if the source is exhausted?

  • Re:Shill (Score:5, Informative)

    by Sockatume (732728) on Monday March 10, 2014 @10:08AM (#46445033)

    Water table depletion is directly analogous to exhausting an oil or coal resource; you'll get the atoms back in there, but not on the same timescale you took them out.

  • by Sir_Eptishous (873977) on Monday March 10, 2014 @11:01AM (#46445503) Homepage
    Not true.
    What do you think Silicon Valley and the surrounding areas were before HP, et al took up shop?
    Farms, orchards and ranches. And this was before the 1950's. [amazon.com]
    From Salinas, Watsonville, over the hill to Los Gatos, all of the Santa Clara valley, up the peninsula, across the bay, up in the north bay...
    Tons of food was grown and rasied around the bay area before it turned into a hipster billionaires playground. Hell, there may still be some orchards hiding in Los Altos...

    I think you are talking about southern California, which is a desert.

    The Mediterranean Climate areas of the state, and especially the bay area and areas north were extremely fruitful and supported the largest numbers of native Americans on the continent before Europeans arrived.
  • by mbeckman (645148) on Monday March 10, 2014 @11:50AM (#46445903)
    Missing from the vegetarian fear fest is that meat has ten times the caloric value of vegetables. For example, the 100 calories achieved with 1.2 ounces of porterhouse steak requires eating more than 12 ounces of Broccoli. [drfuhrman.com]. That ten-fold higher mass also has an even higher bulk, since vegetables are much less dense than meat. That means ten times the cost, at least, to ship the same caloric content as vegetables compared to meat.

    Of course we need vegetables too, for vitamins and minerals, as part of a balanced diet. But meat has high value as a compact source of calories required for daily life. As far as water usage goes, the California drought is temporary. There is no scientific evidence [blogspot.com] that the intensity or frequency of drought in the western U.S. is increasing (). All that is required is managing agricultural cycles to accommodate dry periods. When you interfere with that management, for instance by blocking water supplies to agriculture to protect delta smelt, then drought can get the upper hand. That's what's happening today in California.
  • Say what? (Score:3, Informative)

    by ramoutar (257449) on Monday March 10, 2014 @12:12PM (#46446113)

    Average age of slaughter for cattle is 18 to 24 months depending on who you ask (http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_best_age_for_beef_slaughter?#slide=2), and the average consumption of water for dry cattle is 38 L/day (http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/engineer/facts/07-023.htm#2). Take the maximum of 24 months you get: 38 L x 365 days in a year x 2 = 27,740 litres. Which is approx. 7,328 gallons. 1 ton is approx. 2,000 pounds...average weight for cattle at slaughter is around 1,400 pounds (http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_slaughter_weight_for_a_cow?#slide=6), so that would be 7,328 gallons x 2 = 14,626 gallons of water.

    The article says it takes 145,000 gallons of water. I'd like to see the author's source material.

    But either way, it's nice to see that the author is not pushing his vegan agenda (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_E._McWilliams).

  • Re:Alfalfa (Score:5, Informative)

    by crunchygranola (1954152) on Monday March 10, 2014 @02:30PM (#46447683)

    The main question is: Where does the water California is watering its crops come from, and what will California do if the source is exhausted?

    The water California is watering its crops with comes primarily from rivers. The rivers are watershed from rain which condensed out of water vapor in the atmosphere. Most of that water they use then evaporates and becomes water vapor in the atmosphere where it eventually condenses and falls as rain again and feeds the rivers.

    It's the water cycle that you should have learned about in elementary school.

    The only reason the rivers that are the source of the water would be exhausted is if it stops raining. If that happens, it won't be because we were raising too much alfalfa.

    The Dunning-Kruger Effect on devastating display: those who are utterly clueless about a subject (water resource management) have no idea how ignorant they are and "lecture" in insufferable manner about utter irrelevancies.

    No one is supposing that alfalfa growing is violating the conservation of mass or sending water into the fourth dimension never to be seen again. Of course any water lost to evaporation will eventually, somewhere, fall once again as rain.

    The problem is that the amount that falls where California can use it is limited, and currently inadequate for the demands placed on it. If it evaporates that is lost to any other use, when it falls again somewhere in the world, it won't be in California.

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