|NY Times Op-Ed
Meat Makes the Planet Thirsty
By JAMES MCWILLIAMS
AUSTIN, Tex. — CALIFORNIA is experiencing one of its worst droughts on
record. Just two and a half years ago, Folsom Lake, a major reservoir
outside Sacramento, was at 83 percent capacity. Today it’s down to 36
percent. In January, there was no measurable rain in downtown Los
Angeles. Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency. President
Obama has pledged $183 million in emergency funding. The situation,
despite last week’s deluge in Southern California, is dire.
With California producing nearly half of the fruit and vegetables grown
in the United States, attention has naturally focused on the water
required to grow popular foods such as walnuts, broccoli, lettuce,
tomatoes, strawberries, almonds and grapes. These crops are the ones
that a recent report in the magazine Mother Jones highlighted as being
unexpectedly water intensive. 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. A 2012
study in the journal Ecosystems by Mesfin M. Mekonnen and Arjen Y.
Hoekstra, both at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, tells an
important story. Beef turns out to have an overall water footprint of
roughly four million gallons per ton produced. 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.
Factor in the kind of water required to produce these foods, and the
water situation looks even worse for the future of animal agriculture in
drought-stricken regions that use what’s known as “blue water,” or water
stored in lakes, rivers and aquifers, which California and much of the
West depend on.
Vegetables use about 11,300 gallons per ton of blue water; starchy
roots, about 4,200 gallons per ton; and fruit, about 38,800 gallons per
ton. By comparison, pork consumes 121,000 gallons of blue water per ton
of meat produced; beef, about 145,000 gallons per ton; and butter, some
122,800 gallons per ton. There’s a reason other than the drought that
Folsom Lake has dropped as precipitously as it has. Don’t look at kale
as the culprit. (Although some nuts, namely almonds, consume
considerable blue water, even more than beef.) That said, a single plant
is leading California’s water consumption.
Unfortunately, it’s a plant 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. Increasingly popular grass-fed beef operations
typically rely on alfalfa as a supplement to pasture grass. Alfalfa hay
is also an integral feed source for factory-farmed cows, especially
those involved in dairy production.
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. The reason is simple. It’s more
profitable to ship alfalfa hay from California to China than from the
Imperial Valley to the Central Valley. 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. All as more
Asians are embracing the American-style, meat-hungry diet.
Further intensifying this ecological injustice are incidents such as the
Rancho Feeding Corporation’s recent recall of 8.7 million pounds of beef
because the meat lacked a full federal inspection. That equals 631.6
million gallons of water wasted by an industry with a far more complex
and resource-intensive supply chain than the systems that move
strawberries from farm to fork.
This comparison isn’t to suggest that produce isn’t occasionally
recalled, but the Rancho incident reminds us that plants aren’t
slaughtered, a process that demands 132 gallons of water per animal
carcass, contributing even more to livestock’s expanding water footprint.
It’s understandable for concerned consumers to feel helpless in the face
of these complex industrial and global realities. But in the case of
agriculture and drought, there’s a clear and accessible action most
citizens can take: reducing or, ideally, eliminating the consumption of
animal products. 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, a better option in many respects, 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.
James McWilliams is a professor of history at Texas State University and
the author, most recently, of “The Politics of the Pasture: How Two
Cattle Inspired a National Debate About Eating Animals .”