Why Eating Meat is a HUGE Waste of Water

Still from Waterworld

Blog by Naomi Hallum, 2018

The Met Office has proclaimed June 2018 to have been one of the hottest and driest Junes on record. We know – we were there!

Meanwhile, BBC News has reported that millions of people across England are going to be affected by a TUB or “temporary use ban” on hosepipes and other non-essential uses of water as a result. The United Utilities (UU) water supply firm has reported that reservoir levels in the north-west are “low” while in certain areas, like the Isles of Scilly, people have been asked to keep water usage to an “absolute minimum” due to “critically low” groundwater supplies.

Sounds serious. So what can we do?

According to UU, a hosepipe spits out around 540 litres of water per hour while a sprinkler left running overnight uses as much water as a family-of-four might use in one week which is why, as of part of the TUB, hosepipes and sprinklers will be a no-go. To conserve more water, UU also recommends spending one minute less in the shower.

However, research conducted in 2014 by the Universities of Manchester, Edinburgh, Southampton and Lancaster suggested that fewer than 20% of people with gardens ever used a hosepipe to water it. In addition, the Energy Saving Trust estimates that of the average 142 litres of water used per person per day, only about 1% goes on the garden and 1% on the car.

You might well ask: is there nothing more effective we can be doing to reduce our water footprint?

The answers to that would be yes!

First off, it’s important to understand that a water footprint looks at both the direct and indirect uses of water and includes both water pollution and water consumption throughout the full production cycle; from the supply chain to the end-user. In other words, if we want to conserve water, we have to look at how we might reduce both our direct and indirect water footprints: the summation of the water footprints of all the products we consume.

Based on the information provided by UU, just by taking shorter showers and turning off the sprinkler we’d be inclined to think our water footprint should be pretty small. However, if you consume animal products then the opposite will in fact be true.

Let me explain why.

Food makes up more than 65% of our total water footprint, mostly because of all the water that it takes to produce the food we eat. A loaf of bread, for example, requires around 900 litres of water to produce. A packet of crisps? About 45 litres.

On the other end of the scale, it takes a whopping 5000 litres of water to produce a normal sized steak.

Why is that?

Well, that huge water footprint is primarily due to the substantial amount of water needed to grow the grass, forage and feed to sustain a cow over its lifetime, not forgetting water it requires for drinking, cleaning and processing. It takes approximately 550 litres of water just to produce one pound of corn, and a cow can eat over a thousand pounds of corn in only a few months.

Pound for pound, it actually takes up to a hundred times more water on average to produce animal protein than plant-based protein. “Plants have protein?!” I hear you exclaim. Why yes, yes they do. Where do you think a 400 pound gorilla gets his?

Image source: IFAD

Now, the steak-lovers of the world might argue; “well, we’ve got to eat!” and they would be right. We do. But there’s a far less wasteful and more sustainable way to do so.

In his 2018 TED Talk, Bruce Friedrich – Executive Director of The Good Food Institute (GFI) – explains how we quite literally throw food away in the form of edible crops every time we choose to eat meat instead. For example, it involves feeding nine calories of soy, wheat and grains into a chicken to get just one calorie of [edible] chicken back out, so for every 100 calories of chicken produced, we throw away 800 calories in food waste. That’s a bit like making nine trays of chocolate brownie, then throwing away eight of them – something I sincerely hope no one would ever do!

This inefficient way of producing a wholly unnecessary food product means using eight times as much land, eight times as many herbicides and pesticides, and eight times as much water. For the sake of a chicken nugget or a hamburger I ask you, sincerely, is the degradation of our planet really worth it?

According to a 400-page report published by the United Nations (UN) entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow, the inefficiencies of animal agriculture are one of the top causes of our environmental problems; from water pollution and water usage, to species loss and climate change. On the issues of climate change specifically, the UN has said that more harmful emissions relating to climate change are attributable to the global meat industry than all forms of transportation (cars, buses, planes) combined, and that producing chicken causes 40 times as much climate change per calorie of protein than a plant-based source of protein, such as beans or legumes.

And here are some additional water-usage facts worth noting:

  • Animal agriculture water consumption ranges from 34 – 76 trillion gallons annually. By comparison, fracking (hydraulic fracturing) uses between 70-140 billion gallons annually.
  • More than 80% of UK farmland is used for livestock.
  • 477 gallons of water are required to produce 8 large eggs
  • Approximately 900 gallons of water are needed for 1lb block of cheese
  • It requires 30 gallons of water to produce one glass of milk.
  • A dairy farm averaging 2000 cows uses about 40 million gallons of water annually.
  • Not eating a pound of beef would save the equivalent amount of water as not showering for six entire months
  • The crop and animal production sub-sector across England and Wales is responsible for 97% of all consumptive water use in the agriculture sector.
  • Without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% and still feed the world.

Numerous environmental organisations agree that avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, as well as the size of your water footprint. In fact, amongst all the different diet types, from meat eater or pescatarian, to vegetarian and vegan; meat eaters are responsible for the largest amount of greenhouse gas emissions (around 16 pounds of carbon dioxide daily on a 2000 calorie diet) whilst those on a vegan diet are responsible for the lowest (around 6.5 pounds of carbon dioxide daily on a 2000 calorie diet).

In case you’re still wondering why it is so important to conserve water then let me summarise:

Water sustains life: it feeds us, our ecosystem and our planet. As 71% of the earth is covered in water, you may be under the impression that we have oceans of the stuff.

We don’t.

Water scarcity is recognised by the UN as one of the world’s most serious humanitarian threats. Only 3% of the earth’s water is fresh water and only 1% of that is available for drinking, with 2% of our available freshwater sources locked in ice caps and glaciers. Therefore, with rapidly growing population rates it’s vitally important that we preserve this precious resource: not just so we can keep watering our grass and taking long showers, but so we can protect the future of our planet – for our children, for their children, and for the generations to come.

Just think about Kevin Costner in post-apocalyptic nineties movie classic* Waterworld. He wasn’t having much fun now, was he?!

If you’d like to live more sustainably and be able to avoid having to urinate in the shower, then why not try going vegan for a month? You’ll massively reduce your water footprint while inadvertently benefiting your health and animals all at the same time. It really is a win-win.

*Yes, yes it was a classic!!!

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