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Earth Science

Meat Makes Our Planet Thirsty 545

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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  • by drfred79 ( 2936643 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @08:57AM (#46444465)
    We just had a much needed rain. To protect fish from swimming up the delta they dumped thousands of acre feet of water into the bay. I'm all for restoring wetlands but we should prioritize water for humans during droughts. The poor are the hardest hit.
  • Re:Shill (Score:5, Insightful)

    by thaylin ( 555395 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:03AM (#46444497)
    Can you dispute the statement, or do you just want to attack the person? I love my meat, but if the numbers are true then we have an issue, especially the exportation part.
  • Don't have kids (Score:0, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:03AM (#46444501)

    If you're truly an environmentalist.

  • by thaylin ( 555395 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:04AM (#46444511)
    But what if, in prioritizing water for humans now, you cause more issues latter by destroying even more of the food chain's habitat?
  • Yup (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:05AM (#46444515)

    It's a frequent "let's play absurd" argument from meat eaters that plants have a central nervous system, too, and suffer and that they are being nice to plants by not eating meat.

    But processing plants into meat before consumption requires easily six times as much vegetable matter than if you eat it right away. Now one can't put this to an immediate comparison since obviously the human digestive system can make almost no use at all from eating grass, so one needs to pick grass variants (like rice or maize) that process significant amounts of their energy into more humanly digestible sugars than cellulose.

    But the short and the long story is: eating meat is an inefficient use of resources, and that's even the case when the particular meat animals (like cattle) are quite better at digesting plant matter than humans are.

  • by captainpanic ( 1173915 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:09AM (#46444545)

    Without the fish, your rivers will die.
    Why would you want to sacrifice your own healthy river for cattle feed in China?

  • Re:Delta Smelt (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Nimey ( 114278 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:10AM (#46444559) Homepage Journal

    Or, you know, people could have been smart enough to not irrigate crops in a desert. Nice attempt at counting political coup, though.

  • by jythie ( 914043 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:11AM (#46444569)
    Thing is we are not talking about subsistence prioritization, we are talking about water's usage in what is essentially a luxury industry, an industry that is driving up the cost of everything else in the process. In this case, if we are going to 'prioritize humans' then that is it, humans will consume as much as they can and leave nothing, so there is no point where humans are 'done' and resources can be diverted for preservation.

    As for the poor being hardest hit, that is not the fault of the drought, that is the fault of the middle class. Cheap beef raises water consumption and prices of everything else.
  • Re:Shill (Score:5, Insightful)

    by putaro ( 235078 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:17AM (#46444619) Journal

    First, people like to talk about "consuming" water. Water isn't consumed because it isn't turned into something else permanently, unlike say, oil or coal, which do not replenish in a reasonable amount of time. The only time the amount of water being used is actually relevant is when it's being pulled from a finite source for irrigation, like an underground aquifer or a river. A large portion of the planet gets sufficient rainfall to support all manner of agriculture. Raising alfalfa in California is dumb. Raising rice in Japan is not.

    Feeding cattle on grassland that is not irrigated is not "consuming" water. As long as the land is not over-grazed it's not really an issue. In fact, the grass needs to be eaten and fertilized to thrive - it's co-evolved with large ruminants like cattle or horses.

    So, these statistics are meaningless because it depends on where you're growing the crops as to whether or not you're consuming a finite resource. They're only useful in a local context. There are other side effects of raising cattle, such as deforestation, that are relevant.

  • Re:Shill (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Z00L00K ( 682162 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:18AM (#46444631) Homepage

    Not all farm land is suitable for growing vegetables, but it may be suitable for grazing. The big problem we have is that the herds are larger than what the growth on a certain land area can sustain and therefore carbohydrate supplements have to be purchased.

    In contrast there's a balanced farming where the area of a farm only have the amount of animals that it can support, no more. Some supplements may be needed even then, but in those cases it's mostly a question of minerals, not carbohydrates.

    The amount of water consumed by a bovine is only to some extent wasted, the majority ends up as urine that completes the cycle of returning nutrients to the land where the grazing occurs.

    Overall - the major problem with water consumption for beef production is when the farm is unable to support the herd without artificial support.

  • Re:Shill (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cheesybagel ( 670288 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:19AM (#46444647)

    If you knew anything about farming you would know alfafa is use in crop rotation to replenish the nitrogen content of soil. It is a legume.

    To me the whole thing reads like yet another article advocating the monoculture of soy and corn. Yes lets make cows diabetic too.

  • Re:Alfalfa (Score:5, Insightful)

    by zerosomething ( 1353609 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:20AM (#46444651) Homepage
    Half wrong. Beef cattle are fed Alfalfa, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A... [wikipedia.org]

    Also wrong from TFA "exporting some 100 billion gallons of water a year" in Alfalfa. Alfalfa is typically dried/cured before use and it doesn't suck up every drop of water put on it. Just like there aren't 5 Gal of water in a head of broccoli. Most of that water goes back into the air and falls as show/rain in the rockies.

  • by jellomizer ( 103300 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:24AM (#46444679)

    There are some major differences in the water.
    Animals can move towards water, including many naturally occurring locations. Plants grow where they are planted, and they are dependent on nature giving them water.

    Now the real issue is about how we farm. These farms in the dessert, because the weather stays warmer all year, comes at a cost of heavy water usage.
    Farms up in the north east are smaller, however they take advantage of many of the natural resources around them, ponds, adequate rainfall. At the expense of a shorter growing season.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:24AM (#46444685)

    artificial market controls keep the price of meat low, so we consume excess amounts.
    as the price rises, consumption will go down and the problem solves itself. meat will turn from main course to side dish real fast.

    i never understood the fixation with 100% meat. meatloaf > pure beef. people were hyperventilating online when taco bell announced their "meat" was 40% meat.

  • Re:Shill (Score:3, Insightful)

    by smooth wombat ( 796938 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:25AM (#46444689) Journal
    if it harms the overall society in the end.

    By that logic, stop using your computer. Between the mining of elements used in its construction, the huge amount of water needed to produce the parts, and everything else that goes into making a computer, it's harming society.

    Oh wait, it makes you happy using a computer? Well then, carry on, society be damned.
  • by Culture20 ( 968837 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:28AM (#46444713)
    Why aren't they measuring per metabolizable calorie instead of ton? Meat is more energy dense than a head of lettuce.
    Also, water consumed by plants and creatures isn't lost forever. Sure, the bonds are cracked to make hydrocarbons, but the H and the O still exists. It's not like our bodies perform nuclear reactions.
  • Re:Delta Smelt (Score:4, Insightful)

    by rlp ( 11898 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:30AM (#46444737)

    Humans have been turning desert into agricultural land via irrigation since the time of the Mesopotamians. Most of California is too dry to maintain agriculture and cities without irrigation. Which was working well until the government decided to dump massive amounts of water to protect a bait fish.

  • by Nimey ( 114278 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:39AM (#46444791) Homepage Journal

    How do you propose getting potable water back to where it was?

  • by jnaujok ( 804613 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:52AM (#46444911) Homepage Journal
    In case no one has noticed, California is a desert (or nearly one) for most of its area. Before the farm subsidy act of the 1950's, no one grew food crops in California, and no one raised cattle. Then, after subsidies were based on your distance from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where they get 30-40" of rain a year, suddenly California became *the* address for raising food. When you can raise dairy cattle at a loss, milk them at a loss, and produce a gallon of milk for $6, and still sell it for $2 wholesale -- and the government ensures you're making a profit by handing you a $5 a gallon subsidy, of course you're going to raise cattle and farm in California.

    California has to drain the Colorado river, and the showsheds of something like 1,000,000 hectares of mountains to even get close to their water needs on a good year. In the meantime, farms in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, and the rest of the heartland are all collapsing into bankruptcy, unable to compete with the ever-increasing subsidies bought by the legislatures of California with its 50+ congressmen and electoral votes.
  • Re:Shill (Score:5, Insightful)

    by amiga3D ( 567632 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @10:07AM (#46445029)

    The statement that they export 100 billion gallons of water in alfalfa is silly. There is a sod farm down the road from me and they water grass like crazy. Is all that water in the grass? When they cut, roll and ship the sod does the water go with it? Nope. Some of the water is used by the grass for it's growth, a lot evaporates and a lot goes into the ground returning to the water table. This is pure propaganda of the worst kind. What about the cattle? How much water is in a pound of ground beef? Hundreds? Of course not! It may take hundreds to grow it but the cows piss out almost all the water they take in. That water doesn't ship with them. There is a cost to grow these things and it does take water but water is replenishable although if you overpopulate an area (California) it will become scarce. Maybe deserts were meant to be dry? This article is sensationalism.

  • Misnomer (Score:4, Insightful)

    by PortHaven ( 242123 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @10:08AM (#46445035) Homepage

    Blaming meat eaters for poor agricultural practices is wrong.

    First off, cattle should NOT be eating diets wholly of corn and alfalfa. Cattle are grazers and should by and large be eating grasses and the like. The issue is that we are trying to raise cattle in a concentrated habitat rather than naturally.

    Likewise, look at the midwest and all the corn and soy fields. The immense amount of water drained from prehistoric aquifers is unsustainable. Yet, millions of head of bison roamed the midwest. They fed on the prairie grasses, deep rooted grasses that survived the periodic droughts and protected the soil from those droughts. The bison ate the grasses, pooped, fertilized, and created further soil.

    In fact, permaculturalists have used this method with combinations of cattle and chickens. In those systems the rate of soil growth can be immense, one older system had to replace their fence because so much new fertile soil was made by the intense but balanced grazing of animals.

    It is one thing to say that if we went vegetarian that would provide more food. But it's another to discount how much water we pump out to grow those plants suitable for vegetarians. Versus the ranging of cattle on natural grasses that persist on the mere natural rainfall.

    Consider how sustainable meat would be if cattle ranged suburbia, grazing on all the grass of suburbian yards. Suddenly, that cow uses very little additional water....WHEN ITS EATING GRASS!!!

    Please note, my yard is green with grass, perhaps not gourmey fancy yard grass, but I NEVER water my lawn. Just mow it periodically. Grass doesn't need watering most of the time as long as it is a grass suitable for your region's natural balance.

  • There's a simpler solution... less people.

    Oh here we go again..
      You want to be the first to volunteer to reduce the population by one? I hear a CPAP mask and a tank of helium are an easy way out..
    Good luck trying to convince people to not have children, especially the Bible Belt people who literally believe it's their God-given right to litter the Earth with their offspring. Also good luck convincing any other group of people in the world not to have children for similar reasons, and also because of this insignificant little matter of "propagation of the species" that just happens to be the most basic drive of any living thing.
      So what's your solution, smart guy you might say? We need to find a way to get off this planet.

    Yeah, here we go again. There is no infinite growth scenario for any species. Education is the solution, not throwing your hands up and saying "it's hard, so why bother." Culture needs to change to encourage individual achievement, not "get all the money I can to pass onto my children." Look at Japan. Population growth is declining, and there are no draconian rules on procreation like in China. As a matter of fact, the government is encouraging procreation.

  • Nice try (Score:5, Insightful)

    by AudioEfex ( 637163 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @10:42AM (#46445323)

    Wow, nice try to mask the "be a vegetarian" propaganda (starting with the "gee meat is pretty expensive..." and then down to the soft sell "50%" reduction before you really get to the "but it's really best to not eat meat at all". I see what you did there, doing some multiplying and coming up with huge numbers to sound shocking but at the same time being completely reductive to the complexities - as stated, a lb of beef is worth a lot more to the economy than a lb of watercress.

    Truth is, drought is an expected symptom of humans tapping the resources of a place that is inhospitable to the way which we demand to live. Southern California lawns were not meant to look like lush New England summers year-round. It's also cheaper in many ways to raise cattle there, which is why folks do it there as opposed to other places (though there is great cattle outside of CA, this piece only focuses on CA). They could go places with cheaper or free and plentiful water but pay more for everything else.

    We've sure got plenty of water here on the other coast. Hell many of us have pumps in our basements pushing it out as fast as we can pump it during some seasons, pumping it out into the back yard for free if anyone wanted to take it. But I can't complain - if it bothered me that much, I could just move to CA.

  • Re:NO (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Princeofcups ( 150855 ) <john@princeofcups.com> on Monday March 10, 2014 @10:43AM (#46445333) Homepage

    I have a very difficult time believing this. This sounds like junk, alarmist science. The problems are more than just meat. We cannot even begin to understand what impact human beings have on the environment.

    Wah, science is hard. I don't understand, therefor no one does.

    Yes the human impact is well understood. The question is only how bad it really is, and what can we do to slow down the destruction. We're not even talking about reversing it yet, just slowing it so that we have more time to study.

  • Re:Shill (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Immerman ( 2627577 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @10:45AM (#46445357)

    Well, you're mostly right - I mean even dried alfalfa is probably made of 90% atoms that used to be air and water before the alfalfa "ate" it. Nothing like thousands of gallons though - that's mostly all waste from getting the water to them inefficiently and just dumping most of it back into the environment. Grow things in a sealed greenhouse and the issue should disappear, even in the desert. There's also secondary issues of water *contamination*, which can be a big problem with both plants and animals.

    As for the co-evolution - don't forget the wolves/large predators that are an important part of the equation. They totally change the grazing patterns of ruminants into something that nurtures the land, undisturbed ruminants tend to be extremely destructive. A pretty example: http://www.filmsforaction.org/... [filmsforaction.org]

  • by Oligonicella ( 659917 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @11:10AM (#46445583)
    Yes there are, but those require an open mind, researching your data and ***not having a social agenda***.
  • by thepainguy ( 1436453 ) <thepainguy@gmail.com> on Monday March 10, 2014 @11:23AM (#46445711) Homepage
    Just because raising cattle in CA doesn't make sense, it doesn't mean it doesn't make sense to raise cattle anywhere else.

    I LOL when I hear my kids get lectured about the need for water conservation in books that act like California and the midwest are equivalent biomes.
  • by King_TJ ( 85913 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @11:52AM (#46445925) Journal

    It seems to me that almost all of this concern over running short of water centers around having enough available clean drinking water; a very different issue than actually not having water at all.

    California is a *coastal* state, up against an ocean full of water, yet they're seriously entertaining such elaborate ideas as pumping water from an aquifer far below the desert, to areas around L.A. (Never mind the strong possibility that once they drain it, it won't refill for quite a long time again.)

    People keep discussing desalination as too costly and inefficient a process... as something that's "not Green enough". IMO, that's ridiculous. The clear answer is to do more R&D to make that process more feasible! When you're short on drinkable water but you sit up against an ocean full of it, and removing the salt is the only real obstacle? Figure out a good way to remove the salt!

  • by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @12:10PM (#46446099) Journal

    Judging by your use of the word "enviornazi", I'm dubious that any amount of evidence would sway you.

  • Re:Alfalfa (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 10, 2014 @12:49PM (#46446511)

    Seriously? You're going to read "exporting some 100 billion gallons of water a year [in Alfalfa]" as the author saying "they ship alfalfa, and in that alfalfa is 100 billion gallons of water"? I'm not sure if you're being overly literal, or really don't understand. It is more than clear that the implication here is that 100 billion gallons of water were used to create a product that wasn't for local consumption, and that 100 billion gallons of water would have been better used for local consumption. Can you imagine the shipping costs on 100b gl of water? Ridiculous.

  • by Valdrax ( 32670 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @12:56PM (#46446599)

    We just need to get serious about desalination. ... But of course, you will never hear this argument from "environmental activists," because their whole agenda is fewer people, subsisting in increasingly primitive conditions. If they could engineer a plague that would wipe us all out, they would do it.

    Oh, come off it. You won't hear many environmentalists arguing for desalination because (a) it has enormous energy costs which themselves have environmental impacts, and (b) it's just a band-aid over overconsumption, and it won't discourage people from continuing on an unsustainable trend until we get to a point that technology can't solve.

    Plus, you shouldn't mentally lump an entire group in with its extremists. Do you really feel it's fair when people paint all conservatives as white supremacists just because that elements exists at the fringes of the conservative movement? Then it's no more fair to paint all environmentalists as neo-primitive genocidal maniacs. Yeah, they're there, but they aren't the majority by a long shot.

    By far, most of us are motivated by concerns over human survival. We're concerned that humanity is steering itself off a cliff and are a willing to make a few economic sacrifices right now to avoid catastrophic ones later. (You know, just like most conservatives want us to do with our national spending.) It's just all about long-term planning and responsible use of resources. It does not involve killing people -- that's what we want to stop from happening.

  • Slash and burn farming the rainforests is not a form of modern western intensive agriculture.
  • by swb ( 14022 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @02:10PM (#46447419)

    A lot of green power sources like wind are only usable for peak load generation, why not use unclaimed power for feeding seawater desalination? California has something in excess of 3GW of wind power and a rough figure of 14kWH/kgal of Pacific Ocean desalination.

    If 10% of that power were available for generation but unusable by the grid on a daily basis, you could desal 21 million gallons of water or nearly 8 billion gallons per year. It's only 3% of the LA area annual use, but it's basically free water since the wind is blowing but there's no use for the power in the grid.

    As renewables grow, something like this could be a great power sink for renewables that can generate at rates beyond what the grid can absorb and would otherwise be shut down. The desal plant could power/up down based on the need to absorb more or less electricity.

Sigmund Freud is alleged to have said that in the last analysis the entire field of psychology may reduce to biological electrochemistry.