Water Shortage Woes - Meat and Vegetable Week

By Mark Falanga

Photo courtesy of Steve Johnson.

It’s pretty simple. Without water, we die.  There is no need to remind farmers in the Western and Midwestern United States of that simple fact. The most recent federal assessment in August reports that parts of at least 33 states, mostly in the West and the Midwest, are experiencing drought conditions that are severe or worse.

The late summer heat wave is affecting 87 percent of the land dedicated to growing corn, 63 percent of the land for hay and 72 percent of the land used for cattle.

The National Climatic Data Center reported on Monday that the first eight months of 2012 were the hottest ever recorded in the continental United States. The summer period of June, July, and August ranked third. Even though storms from Hurricane Isaac offered, an albeit intemperately, welcome ease of circumstances through the region, it is still facing its worst drought since 1988.

Regardless of what is causing the droughts, its presence demands one impending environmental question: How can we use our limited water resources to grow our food most efficiently? The United Nations predicts that the global population will be close to 9 billion people by the year 2050, 2 billion more than we have now.

Dr. Colin Chartres, of the International Water Management Institute, says that feeding that many people by 2050 is possible. However, he notes that “ we have to reflect on the cost to the environment in terms of water withdrawals and land resources.”

Now we are faced with a dilemma on how to best use those resources: Would eating a vegetarian diet be better for our water supply? The question is also suggested by a similar report from the Stockholm International Water Institute.

John Cunningham is the Consumer Research Manager for the Vegetarian Resource Group, a non-profit organization that educates the public on vegetarianism. He believes that maintaining a vegetarian diet is a great way to conserve water.

“It takes 110,000 to 150,000 liters of water for 1 kilogram of beef, whereas it only takes 500 to 600 liters of water to grow 1 kilogram of corn,” Cunningham tells BTR.

He further went on to explain how by using water to grow livestock feed, then using the feed for the animal, in addition to the animal’s own water ration, is a very inefficient way to grow food. Thus, by cutting out the middle man, we can simply use the water to grow more corn.

But despite these findings, there are some sources of nutrients that are found in meat that are very beneficial.  Protein, calcium, iron, and vitamin B12 to name a few.

“You can get these nutrients in a variety of ways,” says Cunningham, “The key is to look for dark, leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale. Cooked pinto beans and soybeans are also good sources of protein, as is quinoa.”

In addition, he stated that if some nutrients aren’t being met, supplements can be taken which do not contain any meat.

The evidence suggests that the process of cultivating meat is a very inefficient use of our water, but would even a temperate worldwide withdrawal from meat consumption solve the issue of water scarcity?

Upon referral from America’s Meat lobby, the American Meat Institute, livestock sustainability consultant and adjunct professor in animal science at Washington State University, Dr. Judith Capper tells BTR that the future of meat eating is not as bleak as vegetarian and environmental groups would have the public believe.

Her work in studying the sustainability of the livestock industry portrays dairy and beef production as far more innovative and compensating of increasing demand for sustainability than environmental groups make them out to be.

“In the United States, we cut our water use for livestock by 12 percent over the past 35 years, and in that same time, decreased our man use by 33 percent in that same time frame,” says Capper, “If we implement these practices in the developing world such as South America and Asia, we would see water use go down.”

When asked if the land use for grazing would be better used for growing vegetables, Capper said that “the perception that we can grow broccoli and kale on any soil simply isn’t true. We need to make sure that land use is appropriated for the correct purpose, in case of grass fields, that purpose is better suited toward livestock.”

When asked if this could be sustainable for the next 40 years, Capper is optimistic but does share the same sense of urgency offered by the environmental research in question.

“We need to start thinking about implementing these systems now,” says Capper. “If we start in 10, 20, or 30 years down the road, it might be too late.”