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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.
    • 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?
    • 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?

    • 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.
      • 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 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.

    • by putaro ( 235078 )

      Are you talking about California? Drought doesn't hit poor people any harder than rich in California. Other areas, especially where subsistence farming is practiced, yes.

      • by thaylin ( 555395 )
        So in that state water costs less for the poor than the rich? The point is that while it may cost the same, it hurts one group more because it costs more of their money as a percentage of their money.
        • by putaro ( 235078 )

          Water bills typically don't go up a lot in droughts. That may change, but the way they've been managed in California in the past, they don't raise the rates because of a shortage.

    • by es330td ( 964170 )

      The poor are the hardest hit.

      The poor are ALWAYS hardest hit. The definition of "poor" in general context is "those lacking resources." No matter what harmful event happens on Earth, the "have-not's" are going to be most adversely impacted; the "have's" would have left, bought supplies, lived in brick & mortar instead of a modular home. lived on higher ground, etc.

  • 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.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by rmdingler ( 1955220 )
      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.
    • 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 []

      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.

      • 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.

      • 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?

  • Yup (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    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)

  • Does anyone need some water?
  • Oblig XKCD (recent) (Score:5, Informative)

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

    Land Mammals []

  • 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.
    • 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. ...

      Not that I'm completely disagreeing with you but you do realize you are arguing against government compensation for it's wrong doing. Additionally, by implication, you are right about the central valley using more water than it would have normally gotten and the subsidies are much to blame for that. Those subsidies also help produce a lot of vegetables that would not otherwise grow in that region.

      Be consistent ;)

  • Does the high water usage matter?
    • Good question.
      In principle, the economy should be able to solve any problems.
      If water gets too expensive, meat will get even more expensive and well, people will have to stop eating meat.

  • "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.

    • 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.

      It should probably read "now exporting some 100 billion gallons of fresh water. When we run out of fresh water, the real wars begin.

    • by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <> 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.

  • 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.

  • I don't get the problem. Do these guys really believe that whatever water you put into creating food is completely gone and will never appear again on this planet?
  • 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.
  • by nurd68 ( 235535 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @09:41AM (#46444809) Homepage

    My family doesn't buy beef because the half dozen or so deer we kill per year more than meets our needs.

  • 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.
    • 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. []
      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.
    • Before the farm subsidy act of the 1950's, no one grew food crops in California, and no one raised cattle.

      So all those 1930's Dust Bowl farmers moved from the plains to California just because the desert was more picturesque?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • by amiga3D ( 567632 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @10:12AM (#46445061)

    I noticed sugar beets used very little water comparatively. That may explain why they taste like dirt.

  • by QilessQi ( 2044624 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @10:19AM (#46445107)

    Alfalfa is also rotated with corn to replenish the nitrogen in the soil. I believe that if you just grow corn on the same plot year after year without crop rotation, the soil becomes "tired" and your corn quality suffers. I suppose that alfalfa is mostly going to cattle, and we could rotate the corn with soybeans instead, but there's more to growing alfalfa than just feeding cows. [] []

  • 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.

  • The numbers for alphalpha and water exported didn't make a lot of sense, so I did a couple of quick searches: []

    This is, of course, not real water nor the water contained in the crop itself, but the water used to irrigate the crop, water that could be used for something more importantâ"at least according to the authors.

    That is right, they are counting as "exported" water which....the vast majority of.... evaporates locally, and stays in the local environment.

    That is straight up lies.

  • by slashmydots ( 2189826 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @11:18AM (#46445665)
    They're operating under the well established scientific fact that when water hits the ground, it's gone. It just simply ceases to exist. If you think maybe it's used to carry minerals up a plant's stem and into the leaves where it's aspirated out into the air and becomes water vapor that falls back down onto the ground when it rains elsewhere, you're just talking fantasy and science fiction. Clearly the water is just GONE!
  • by thepainguy ( 1436453 ) <> 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 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 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. []. 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 [] 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 (, and the average consumption of water for dry cattle is 38 L/day ( 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 (, 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 (

The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable. -- John Kenneth Galbraith