Monday, August 31, 2015

Almonds, Avocados to Eggs, Cheese, and Beef: The Water Footprint of Our Food Choices

If you’ve ever listened to KQED (the local NPR channel) in the Bay Area, you can probably regurgitate these lines in your sleep: “Support for KQED comes from the Almond Board of California. The water needs of almond trees are not unique among trees, and almond growers are committed to innovation and water efficiency. More at" This defense is fueled by mounting pressure on almond growers about how much water almonds take up in the drought-ridden California, the producer of 80% of the world's almonds, over half of which are exported abroad. 

Almond farmers aren't the only ones feeling the heat of the scorching Sun, literally and metaphorically. There's an official drought State of Emergency -- mandatory water restrictions imposed on residents, businesses, and farms for the first time ever to reduce usage by 25%. Ban on watering of ornamental grass on public street medians. Drought-tolerant landscaping of lawns to conserve water. Scientific innovation. Frenzy among residents for two-minute showers. Pleas to God, praying for rain. Believing in America’s greatness in overcoming just about anything...

State officials say the 25% cut in usage amounts to roughly 1.5 million acre-feet of water (an acre foot of water equals about 325,000 gallons) over the next nine months. That amounts to saving 487.5 billion gallons of water over 9 months. Let's commit this number to memory for now.

Wherever we hear of water in relation to food production, it all comes down to drip irrigation over sprinklers over the traditional flood irrigation. Avocados, almonds, and asparagus are usually the bad guys over everything else. At the face value, this perception is not incorrect. Seeing is believing. Crop agriculture consumes water overtly. We see it. We measure it. We blame it. That's where we instinctually look to conserve it. But by conserving water in irrigation alone, we would be saving a few drops from what is already a trickle in our water footprint!

A water footprint measures the volume of water consumed, evaporated, and polluted to produce a product from its raw ingredients. The Water Footprint Network calculates water footprint as a sum total of three categories of water: blue (the amount of surface and ground water used directly or evaporated), green (the amount of rainwater used directly or evaporated), and grey (the amount of freshwater required to mix and dilute pollutants enough to maintain a certain standard of water quality, e.g. the US Clean Water Act).

This infographic published by National Geographic a few years ago reveals that animal products take up the lion’s share of water in food production. The particular order of most to least thirsty foods is beef (1800+ gallons for 1 pound!), sausage (1,382), pork (756), processed cheese (589), chicken (469), eggs (400), fresh cheese (371), followed by most other fruits and vegetables, including avocados (154 gal/lb). 1 pound of almonds does take up 2000 gallons of water but while 4 hamburgers (a total of 1 pound of beef) will feed a family of 4 for just one meal, that family won't consume 1 pound of almonds in one sitting. And certainly not in meal after meal. Woah.

Here is a more detailed insight into the amount of H2O embedded in our everyday life. Several other reputed sources have their own insights -- TreeHugger, HuffPo, LATimes, The Guardian, Water Footprint Network's product gallery -- and they unanimously illustrate just how water-intensive meat, dairy, and poultry production is. With meat-consumption ever increasing, per What the World Eats, the global water crises doesn't seem to be getting any significant respite anytime soon.

But why would animal agriculture be an insatiable water hog? Well, let’s try to rationalize with logic and science. The animals that we raise for food are living beings just like us. They drink water, eat food, pee and poop, breathe and fart and do everything else. (They feel as well, just like our pet dogs and cats, but that’s a story for another time.) Out in the Nature, they bathe and have sex too. But cattle and poultry is typically denied those primal needs. In contrast to plants that only 'drink' water and make up for it by inhaling carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen, these animals consume way more water and exhale CO2 and methane (more on that in a follow-up post) instead of oxygen.

A male steer is typically raised for 2 years before being slaughtered for the various meats. For those two years, it has to be fed grain or grass (that uses water to be cultivated, irrigated, harvested, transported), drinks hundreds of gallons of water, and takes up hundreds more for its waste to be cleaned up. Add all that up and that number is north of 1,800 gallons of water for one pound of beef. For one hamburger, it's 450 gallons. That's an equivalent of showering for 45 days! And we think we'd conserve water by taking 2 minute showers but never looking at our plates to determine just how much worse we are making the drought with every meal we eat.

Unfortunately, there's even more hidden water in animal agriculture. Think of the power needed to keep the giant cattle ranches and animal farms operational. They are not solar powered, in case you were wondering =). The coal and gas needed to generate electricity for these facilities uses water to be dug up or fracked from the earth and converted to energy from the crude materials. Given the current demand for meat, all factory farms have to be entirely mechanized for them to be profitable. That machinery is power hungry too. It also needs to be washed and treated periodically to get rid of all the blood, skin, flesh, and filth. So, more meat production equals more avenues for water usage.

The filth from these farms and the animal carcasses themselves are transported to faraway landfills to be disposed off, requiring more fuel and infrastructure. The massive amounts of urine and fecal matter need appropriate disposal too -- in the US alone, 7 million pounds of animal excrement is produced from the factory farms every minute. Did your jaw drop yet? Checkout the infographic by Cowspiracy to come face to face with the real gruesomeness behind our meat-loving culture. And there would be still more to be enlightened about.

No wonder the entire factory farming practice is extremely prone to disease and infection, given the nature of the work and the crowded and dingy conditions in which the animals are bred and kept for the business to be profitable. The entire ecosystem is propped up by massive doses of antibiotics that are added to animal feeds. Manufacturing these bacteria decimators takes up resources too, water being the foremost of them. Then, the waste water generated from these farms has to be ridded, once again, of these same antibiotics before it can be reused. Waste water treatment is incredibly energy-hungry.

So this raises the impending, yet much-dreaded, question -- how much water would we save by switching to a plant-based diet? Turns out we would be saving 1,100 gallons of water per day. The meat and dairy industries use one-third of the earth's fresh water resources. Domestic use of water is 5%; animal agriculture takes up 55%. It only takes some wisdom and resolve to replace one hamburger with a veggie burger but what would we replace 450 gallons of fresh water with? Without water, life itself would not exist.

With the 38.8 million people of California eating vegan just 1 day a week, we'd be saving 38.8 million x 1,100 gallons = 42.68 billion gallons of water a week. Over nine months, that is 42.68 x 4 x 9 = 1,536.5 billion gallons of water. That is more than one-third of the 487.5 billion gallons the state hopes to save with its extreme drought management measures. Again, this is the saving from choosing to eat plants over animal products just 1 out of 7 days a week. This choice, by the way, is healthy too. Even if praying to God has been your way of helping the drought so far, well, God only helps those who help themselves...

Further, even if drought and sustainability aren't your primary concerns, it's worth looking at how our food choices fit in the socio-economic model of today's world. Per UN Water, 85% of the world's population lives in the driest half of the planet and 783 million people do not have access to clean water. On the contrary, an average American lifestyle is kept afloat by 2,000 gallons of H2O a day -- twice the global average. Sounds like being in denial of the consequences of our obsession with meat and cheese is bearing a heavy burden on our core ethics and responsibility as a global citizen beyond any reasonable doubt. 

Finally, on the topic of veganism, or even vegetarianism, many people simply shrug and state "eating meat is my personal choice" or simply proclaim themselves as "proud meat eaters." Knowing what you know now, is it really a 'personal' choice? And are you still 'proud' of it? =)

May we be wiser and virtuous.

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