Monday, January 3, 2011

It's All About the (Hidden/Virtual) Water

Ice in the Cow's Water Tank This Morning
Some may recall my mention in a previous post awhile back that MM and I were looking hard at the prospect of reducing our meat consumption still further than it already is. (which is pretty modest, including no red meat)  The idea of doing this has less to do with vegetarianism and health considerations than it does with agricultural practices. 

More to the point, we are concerned--in fact, very concerned--about water.  A few months back I highlighted a National Geographic issue which was devoted entirely to the subject of water, dealt with where water was in shortfall, where in overabundance, and the future of our thirsty planet.  This past week, a region where MM and I have lived, Queensland, Australia, has been hard hit with too much water.  And NOVA's recent program, "Secrets Beneath the Ice" focused on the very scary melting of the Antarctic ice shelf, which has happened before, and which if it continues now will result in a rise of 19 feet of water, obliterating coastlines worldwide.  Of course, these areas currently contain huge populations.  OTOH, at the same time, drought is prevalent in countless places the world over, and clean drinking water is in short supply worldwide.  All these considerations require prompt attention from the world at large, but the world at large is preoccupied with too many other things...

I don't believe people are aware of what is called our water footprint, the industrialized world's use of this precious resource; so in an attempt to pique your interest, I'm going to lay down a bunch of interesting and salient facts, lifted directly from the National Geographic.  I make no apologies here, as I believe NG's primary mission is to educate.  In this case, education is best served by quoting directly.  So, here we go:

"Serve a pound of beef and you are also serving up 1,857 gallons of water.  A cup of coffee?  That's 37 gallons --enough to fill the average bathtub.  Pull on a pair of jeans and you're soaking in 2,900 gallons.  This is our freshwater consumption we don't directly see.  It's called virtual water:  the amount of water used to create a product.  The concept was coined by geographer Tony Allan of King's College London in the early 1990's to explain why Middle Eastern countries, with limited water resources, were not in outright war over water.  His answer?  They imported food--food grown with other country's water. Dutch scientist[s]...calculated the virtual water in commodities as a tool for water management and to give countries, companies, and individuals a clearer mesure of their water footprint."

Here are some shocking figures when it comes to producing items and commodities we take for granted:

1,857.....the amount of water it takes to produce one pound of beef
1,382.....the amount of water it takes for a pound of sausage
756 gallons for a pound of sausage
469 gallons for a pound of chicken
589...for a pound of processed cheese
193 for a pound of plums
400 for a pound of eggs
138 for a pound of yogurt
103 for a pound of bananas
31 for a pound of potatoes
..and now for a few hardgoods...
2,900 gallons to produce one pair of jeans
2,800 gallons to produce one bedsheet
766 gallons to produce one cotton T-shirt

A cup of tea only takes 9 gallons; and a glass of beer only takes 20 gallons!

So, again, lifting the explanation from the NG:

"Why meat takes more water:  A human diet that regularly includes meat requires 60 percent more water than a diet that's predominantly vegetarian.  With the world's middle class expanding, meat consumption is expected to double by 2050. 

It takes 808,400 gallons of water for 18,700 pounds of pasture, feed, and hay for the life of a beef animal raised for food.  Add to that 6,300 gallons of water for the animal's drinking water; plus 1,900 gallons for cleaning (machine milking, cleaning, slaughter-house cleanup, etc.); equals a grand total of 816,600 gallons used during the life of one beef animal raised for food." (industrial farming, the source of most people's meat today).

Gets you thinking, doesn't it?  Is this "sustainable?"  Hardly. I have left red meat mostly off my plate for years now.  After the first little while, I haven't missed it at all.  Of course, we have the milk cow, and she takes a good bit of water, too.  But far less in terms of the water footprint...A pound of yogurt takes 138 gallons versus 1,857 gallons for a pound of beef.

Please give me some feedback on this important subject.  I'm interested in what you have to say...


  1. A good post and a subject worth serious consideration.

    What do you do when your milk cow has a bull calf? Seems like raising it for meat -- grass fed on your own place would be an ecologically sound practice. Sounder than selling it to a commercial feedlot operation.

  2. Elora -- Water is such a huge issue. Many decisions and research. What constraints are you willing to live with? Sooner or later we will not have a choice on how we want to live with water. I think you are on the right track of figuring out how to limit your use of water. Of course, water is in trouble, primarily from industrial ag and corporate irresponsibilities like waste dumping into our waters. There is a lot of info out there that can help you. We all need to practice less water usage either through direct water use or through the masks of consumption. Great post about a concerning issue -- barbara

  3. I must disagree with barbara. Let's not blame ag and corporate irresponsibilities. Look at the average urban household. Do you think this family thinks about conserving water? They spend too much time in the bath or shower,just letting the water run, rinsing their dishes, washing their cars and especially my pet peeve..watering their huge lawns. And then there is the fertlizer that is used in excess to have a perfect lawn and where does the excess go?
    We are small farmers and live in a rural area with a well for water. I think about not wasting water all day long. It is easy to save water used in the kitchen to water plants etc. I run my washer and wash dishes and sometimes take a shower or run water to hand wash items to save running the water down the drain to get hot water. I would never water my lawn and use very little that I carry in a bucket for my garden.
    There are ways for everyone to conserve water. I do agree it will be a major issue in the near future. Just look at CA farms that were cut off from water due to a endangered specics.

  4. Dear Barbara, Vicki and Linda...

    I think I got us all into "hot water" by being a tunnel-visioned yesterday, trying to shorten (shame on me) the presentation of this vital subject, cramming it into too few words. My apologies here, because I don't want you to "take a set" based on my paucity of words here.

    I believe everyone who takes time to visit here is of like minds. So, basically, I am singing to the choir!

    Starting with Vicki's comment regarding raising the milk cow's home. NG did not deal with smallholder farmers in rural areas. At all. It seems to me their whole focus was on "industrial" farming practices. So, it was difficult/impossible for me to come up with comparative data that would "comment" on homegrown beef. But I can't help suspect--and as most who read my blog know, we are subsistence farmers, ourselves--that the water footprint of a single farmer's beef animal, whose mother supplies not only food for the calf, but also a meat product raised mostly on grass and hay and with a water source that isn't tapped out with irrigation...has to compare favorably with a "vegetarian" menu. Linda's comments concering urban cavalier attitudes toward water conservation ring true. We, too, out here JOTOLR, mentally meter our water supply, particularly in summer, when drought threatens as it has several times in the past few years. I applaud your thoughtful and far-reaching conservation, Linda! Our water also comes from a well, but recently our esteemed neighbor clear cut the entire hillside directly across the road. (It's sickening to know that we once owned --and would never have clear cut--the property. Oh, well....) And that clearcutting has dramatically changed the water flow. People here who have had water in abundance, now find themselves with dry wells. So, we worry, too. He has masses of cattle "grazing" on the rocks and stumps he has left behind.

    Linda, I don't believe Barabara in any sense, meant to "lean on" small farmers, and I would suspect she would agree with everything you have said in your post. And she's right: soon we are not going to have a choice. Water--not oil--and its distribution, should be the concern of every one on the planet. Again, I believe I may have inadvertently set you all up by not being expansive enough. My apologies, again!

    But, I want add one thing here. MM and I are, together, reading out loud (sharing the read-aloud duties) a fascinating and compelling book entitled "Empires of Food-- Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations." Water isn't specifically addressed, but the whole concept of growing enough food, etc and having safe, potable water--is inextricably linked to water. I highly recommend this book. Authors are Evan D. G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas. Finally, I want to thank you so much for your input! The more I see water--drinking water, watering water, washing water-- being "politicized" and "privatized" the more fearful I become. And this is worldwide.

    Thanks for taking your valuable time to comment.


  5. Thought provoking post - I'm curious whether these water figures were for grass fed beef raised outside all year around or that strange anomaly of feed lot disease-ridden beef where animals live such a miserable existence. Of course figures for home raised beef will probably never exist given that those of us who do obtain our meat this way are probably too difficult too monitor. For the few years that I had to live in the city I ate very little meat but now I'm back on the land and we raise our own beef we eat it nearly everyday. Health 'experts' be dammed - I very much subscribe to the theories of traditional diets and "Nourishing Traditions" believing that the fat in meat and organs is vital for obtaining the essential nutrients that are so stripped from out diets today. Out of curiosity I would love to see the water figures that tell us how much nutrition we receive from each of those water consuming foodstuffs. My guess is that we would obtain more nutrition per pound of meat than any of the others listed therefore requiring less of it to nourish our bodies and making that water usage go a lot further. And if like our ancestors traditional diets (my ancestors are European) we used every last piece of that animal including blood, bones and offal to obtain full nutrition rather than only the prime cuts we use today those figures may start to look even better. Just my two cents worth!