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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 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:13AM (#46444575) Journal
    Most farmers who grow alfalfa are those who got water at throw away prices back in 1920s/1930s when the Hoover dam was being built, when they pumped the Colorado river over the Sierra Neveda to irrigate the water starved central valley. Then through political action, through law suits and by claiming these as their "right" they have been taking water and much below market prices and wasting it all in stupid crops like alfalfa. If they paid market rates, we could just shrug and leave it to free markets. But after taking in all that water pumped by the government, at far below cost, at far below market rates, they turn around and claim to be "freedom lovers", "get the government out of my hair", "government never creates value" "taxation is theft" libertarians.
  • Re:Shill (Score:3, Interesting)

    by TheGoodNamesWereGone ( 1844118 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:34AM (#46444769)

    but if the numbers are true

    3.3 gallons per tomato? That's a suspicious figure. No, I didn't RTFA, but let's run the numbers... How many tomato plants in an acre? How many fruits per plant? Multiply that by 3.3, and it seems very high.

  • by plopez ( 54068 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:40AM (#46444795) Journal

    "Animals can move towards water"

    Which means that they rip up stream banks, kill native vegetation, and defecate in the water. Domestic cattle really destructive of the watershed and have a large negative impact on water quality. Also, sure cattle can move, but since the drought is regional they would have to move to Iowa or Indiana to get far enough away.

  • Re:Shill (Score:1, Interesting)

    by nevermindme ( 912672 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:49AM (#46444887)
    For that pleasure of eating a steak, I provide a fraction of a job to a US farmer, a US rancher, a US butcher, a US truck driver, a US refrigeration specialist and a US checkout clerk, the supply chain for meat is much more constant through booms and busts and spreads the wealth effect much more than for the collection of Integrated Circuits made in china. You smugness on deciding if my lifestyle choices are good or bad for society really prove nothing but liberalism and veganism are nothing but your opinion multiplied by a political correctness that says I cant respond in a human manner. I can only conclude Vegetarianism and Veganism robs the fallowers of this cult the the fats that keep you brain sane,
  • Re:Alfalfa (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Overzeetop ( 214511 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:53AM (#46444915) Journal

    Closer to 10% wrong. Beef cattle are rarely fed alfalfa - I say this as a former "farmer" 30 years ago as a teen. Alfalfa is twice as expensive as timothy or field grass. It does, however contain calcium, which is great (necessary) for lactating cattle a goats, which is why it's used mcuh more for dairy animals. They pretty much all get grain, though, because the energy content is higher. For Dairy, that means more calories available for producing milk, and for beef it translates to a heavier animal, which in turn is a higher dollar yield at market.

    The 100 billion gallons of water in exported alfalfa, I agree, is so stupid that it basically invalidates the entire article's credibility.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 10, 2014 @10:03AM (#46444999)

    There have always been, and always will be water wars..
    Not because it's an inherently scarce commodity, but because the distribution is uneven, and randomly varies.

    So the folks who plant the pistachio orchards are betting on having enough water sometime in the future to be able to sell 90% of the world's pistachios. It's not like we're subsistence farmers: this is a luxury good to a certain extent, and the Resnicks (who also bring you POMwonderful and Fiji water) are "betting the farm" on this.

    Everyone talks about how insignificant the delta smelt is.. but it's not just the smelt: that's a convenient indicator; it's also the salmon, and the other things in the delta.

    On the other hand, the "preserve the delta" folks are just as bad as the "make the deserts of the San Joaquin bloom" folks. Those delta farms are just as artificial, just 100 years older. Back in the day, there used to be huge floods that would cover much of the valley floor with water. This was aggravated by hydraulic and other mining in the 1850s which put enormous amounts of sediment into what's now the delta. To this day there are huge hills of mine tailings all over the central valley, north of Sacramento, in particular.

    There's a reason Stockton used be called Tuleville: it was basically a swamp filled with tules.

    They also cut down most of the trees in the valley to provide fuel for steamboats going up the river.

    So lets just accept that things in the central valley, and in California in general, are "not natural" and haven't been "natural" for 150 years. Let's recognize that farming is inherently a "subject to nature's whims" business, and, yep, sometimes you're not going to get a crop because it didn't rain/snow enough. Sure enough, you'll need to fallow some land in some years: this has been the case for millenia, and now that a tiny, tiny part of the nation's workforce is occupied in agriculture, it doesn't even need to be particularly disruptive in a economic sense. We're not in early 20th century society, where a drought or flood causes mass migration, a'la the Joads of Steinbeck, or even the Great Northward Migration of African Americans.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 10, 2014 @10:15AM (#46445075)

    The second most selfish thing a human can do is continue existing. The first most selfish thing a human can do is have a child.

  • by Sir_Eptishous ( 873977 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @10:33AM (#46445243) Homepage
    Not only that, but FTFA it shows that the Imperial Valley alfalfa growers are getting their water from the All American Canal, [] which by no means goes over the Sierra Nevada.

    Essentially this situation is more of the same fucked up water management of the Colorado River Basin [], where uses for the water are illogical and based on greed, cronyism and short term thinking.

    Don't worry though, this will change. []
  • Re:Shill (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Princeofcups ( 150855 ) <> on Monday March 10, 2014 @10:34AM (#46445253) Homepage

    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.

    Sorry, but you seem to have missed the point that the alfalfa is being shipped to China for a profit. Or to put it another way, any water conservation project means cheaper water for the alfalfa growers, which means more profits for the corporations that own the farms. This is corruption at it's worse, to the detriment of the people of California, as well as the environment, in the name of profits.

  • by wakawakka ( 1424101 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @10:47AM (#46445379)
    Well, it is easy enough: [] Once the area has been over-grazed and compacted by the animal, the topsoils erodes into the river, leaving only infertile soil where barely anything can grow...
  • by taiwanjohn ( 103839 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @10:49AM (#46445401)

    Domestic cattle really destructive of the watershed and have a large negative impact on water quality.

    Not so fast... There is a growing awareness that well managed herbivores are the only way to reverse desertification and halt climate change. [] The key to this counter-intuitive fact is the "well managed" part. (The link above is to a TED Talk by Allan Savory.)

    If you put a hundred head of cattle on a hundred acres of pasture, and just leave them there, they will roam around, munching only the most palatable plants (leaving the weeds to thrive), endlessly compacting the soil and disturbing the ecosystem. But if you instead give those same 100-head just one acre per day to graze, they'll eat everything in sight (helping to control weeds), aerate the soil with their hooves, and fertilize it with their dung -- and not come back to the same acre for another 100 days.

    This more accurately mimics the pattern found in nature, where herbivores are "mobbed up" and kept moving by predators. And it gives the land time to rest in between visits, allowing the biome to absorb the nutrients and recover from the disturbance. Just look at the before and after photos [] in Savory's TED Talk to see the effects of well managed herbivores.

    Another great example is what Joel Salatin is doing at Polyface Farms in Virginia. [] (This link is a 10min clip from a talk by Michael Pollan, describing the Polyface model.)

    Oh yeah, and then there's the whole "permaculture" movement, as exemplified by Geoff Lawton in his "greening the desert" [] project in Jordan.

    In short, there are many, many options available to us, before we start talking about "going veggie" to save the planet.

  • by ChromaticDragon ( 1034458 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @11:23AM (#46445697)

    For those interested in a casual description of this approach, it's explained a bit in the book "Omivore's Dilemma". They follow around the operations of a small(ish) farm doing pretty much this same thing.

  • by Applehu Akbar ( 2968043 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @11:25AM (#46445725)

    A key factor in human survival is our ability to eat virtually anything. Cricket flour tastes surprisingly good and can be made into a variety of products which do not in any way resemble the original source: []

    Crickets have almost the protein content of beef and use less than half the feed. Best of all, they consume almost no water.

  • by Applehu Akbar ( 2968043 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @11:43AM (#46445857)

    There is no shortage of water in the world as a whole, and human activities do not "use up" water. It's the most infinitely reusable resource there is. We just need to get serious about desalination. In places like California, cranking out fresh water might be a better use for windfields than trying to shoehorn fluctuating amounts of power into the grid. The new graphene process can be far more efficient than traditional R-O (

    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.

  • Re:Delta Smelt (Score:4, Interesting)

    by sjames ( 1099 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @12:38PM (#46446389) Homepage Journal

    There's a bit of slight of hand in that article. They go on and on about a little fish nobody's ever heard of as if that is the only reason, and they call that water a diversion even though it's really a not-diversion.

    They slip in in one place that it's also for salmon. Yes, the incredibly commercially valuable salmon.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo.