Since the Second World Water Forum in 2000, a few organizations such as the United Nations Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation have made it quite clear that there is a rapidly expanding gap between the demand for water and our supply. By 2030, worldwide demand is expected to be 40% more than it is today. Although there are regional variations in urgency and stress, water scarcity is already a reality in many parts of the world. And, because of the comprehensive global extent, the demand-supply gap needs to be recognized and measures to solve it undertaken immediately. Yes, there is a problem of how little fresh water there is on earth, but the more urgent concern should be how we currently use and manage it. With air and land, water should be considered our most precious resource. As such, it should be cared for with future generations in mind.
There are, indeed, concerns voiced by many organizations that we are reaching a pivotal point regarding use of resources with our activities on earth. However, contrary to common belief, I feel it will not be overpopulation, an economic disaster, running out of fossil fuels, or climate change—but rather lack of water that will be the turning point. Why? Because we have used and continue to abuse fresh water as if it is a renewable resource and infinite in quantity. It is not.
While there is a gap between water demand and the ability to provide a truly sustainable supply, there is a much larger disparity between what needs to be done to close that gap and what is actually being accomplished.
Freshwater resources are scarce—just 2.5 percent of all water on earth, and 70 percent of that is locked in glaciers, snow, and the atmosphere. This leaves accessible fresh water at less than 1 percent. While some water is replenished through the natural evaporation/precipitation cycle, much is gathered from underground aquifers or surface water, such as rivers and streams. Many aquifers are being drawn down at rates as high as 250 times their ability to recharge. With surface water sources, there are already heated debates and arguments between those areas and countries using upstream water systems and the effects on those reliant on the very same waterways downstream. Diversion, use for industries and energy, and pollution all affect surface water sources globally. At 93% of total global water consumption, the largest sector using our freshwater, however, is agriculture—with nearly 50% of all water use being taken up by livestock. Once again—50% of all the water used on earth is given to the animals raised and then killed for you to eat. How much do we use for our own drinking purposes? Less than 1% of all water consumed annually.
There are 70 billion animals raised and killed each year on earth. They all require water. A few billion of these animals need up to 30 gallons per day—that’s over 100 times what we, as individuals, need to consume daily. Many sources have calculated that it requires, on average, 2,500 gallons to produce just one pound of beef, with the average American consuming 250 to 300 pounds of meat each year. It needs to be kept in mind that while irrigation is responsible for the majority of global water use, it is the irrigation of crops and drinking water that are both given directly to livestock that is the problem. If, for example, the food we all chose to eat on earth were plant-based, livestock would be taken out of the equation and only a fraction of the water normally used for producing meat would than be needed (1/200 on average, if irrigation was needed at all). Choosing to eat only plant-based foods would essentially omit the middle step in our current inefficient system that uses the vast majority of our fresh water on earth to provide sustenance for animals that we then turn around and eat. Doesn’t make much sense. Timely correction of this vastly archaic agricultural system obviously needs to be at the very center of any global water management strategy.
To be sure, globally we face many varied challenges with water management, and not all related to food choice. For instance China has, and will continue to have, a significant water quality issue with their rapid growth of its use in industry. Still, China also has the largest rate of increase in beef consumption, which will continue to implicate them, as well as all other developed countries such as the U.S., in water waste. India and many African countries, with 90% water usage going to a less industrialized agriculture, can close the water demand-supply gap significantly simply by implementing water saving measures with improved irrigation, soil preservation and fertility techniques, and reduction of inefficient use of water if it is given to livestock or feedcrops. However, similar to our greenhouse gas emission issues with livestock contributing 20%, the very best method for management of our water scarcity problem is to simply eliminate the largest and most unnecessary contributor—livestock.
I believe that there should be economic policies established immediately based on water use. Previous and current mentality has been business as usual and it is demand based—meaning, where there is any increase in ‘need’ or demand for water, it is met with problem solving to provide more (i.e. desalinization, deeper wells, diversion or “borrow” from nearby surface water). A prime example is where there is now recognition of a serious potential water shortage in the Great Plain States due to the massive depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer. The proposed solution is to engineer a pipeline to ‘borrow’ water from the Great Lakes, hundreds of miles away. This, then, would be the “solution”, knowing that the vast majority (trillions of gallons) of irreplaceable water is being pumped from this Ice Age water source each year to give to livestock rather than to simply not use it for this purpose.
We need to reduce demand by recognizing those sectors using the most water and establish parameters and economic incentives to minimize consumption. This could be accomplished with water being one of the components of an “eco-tax” that I propose in my book “Comfortably Unaware”. If the vast amounts of water used for raising and slaughtering livestock were taxed appropriately (proportionate to total global use and value based on ability to renew the resource) and had to be paid for by producers and consumers, we would be well on our way to solving the water scarcity problem.
Now, a final note about grass-fed or pastured livestock.
Remember, the water currently used to support our livestock industry is not sustainable—why would that change with animals raised on pasture? It really wouldn’t. There is still the enormous drain on our water supply by the slaughtering and transfer processes requiring as much as another 400 to 500 gallons per cow. And the proponents of this must think that the animals, if free ranging, will mysteriously not need to drink the same outrageous thousands of gallons of water per animal per year. If anything, the amount would most likely be increased because of the higher activity level of each cow or pig, and they need to live longer to achieve the appropriate weight gain prior to slaughter. All of this water will need to come from somewhere—aquifers or surface water (lakes, ponds, rivers, streams). Whether the animals are grass-fed or not, this is water that could be used directly for human consumption or to produce foods more efficiently such as plant based foods. We know that it requires on average 2,500 but up to 5,000 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef (650–1000 gallons per burger). If this figure is adjusted to reflect pasture only that is being fed to the livestock, it will still require 21,000–22,000 gallons over a 24-month period to raise just one cow. That amount of water is the equivalent of a person taking a five-minute shower each and every day for 6.7 years.
Fifty years ago, who would have thought we would ever run out of fresh water on earth? No one. In fact, very few today give water a thought, especially to the trillions of gallons irreversibly given to animals we raise each year to then slaughter and eat—and, that is precisely why we have a problem.
More perspectives on how our choice of foods effect global water depletion can be found in Chapter VI of “Comfortably Unaware.”