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Water and Agriculture - 1 Rethinking what we eat - Meat and Dairy


Happy Earth Day, Everyone!

I truly can't think of a better day to be discussing water and agriculture.

According to the World Bank, agriculture uses about 70% of the world's water, while households only average around 17% and industry 13%.  With many people already struggling to get enough to eat, the World Bank estimates that if we continue on our present course, we will need 50% more land and 15% more water by 2050. However, the world is not just becoming more crowded. As people grow more affluent as some one billion people have over the last two decades, they are also demanding a richer diet which includes more meat and dairy, the thirstiest 'crops' of all.

Some gains can be achieved by making better use of the water we have. Israel for instance, has long pioneered drip irrigation to minimise water use, and farmers in many countries including China are starting to use remote sensing – that is, using satellite data to monitor fields so that they water only precisely where needed and as much as necessary, rather than creating the excessive run -off which often occurs with conventional irrigation. Mulching, shading and growing ground cover to reduce evaporation also make a difference, but one of the biggest differences we could make is to change what we eat. 

What if we ate less Meat and Dairy

According to some reports, it takes 17 times more water to grow one kilo of beef than one kilo of corn. Vegetarian author John Robbins, quoted in John Vidal's Guardian article, says growing one pound of potatoes uses around 60 lbs. of water, wheat 108 lbs, and rice around 229 lbs, but it takes around 1,000 litres of water to make just one litre of milk (or 90 gallons of water to produce one gallon of yoghurt if you prefer) and 639 gallons to make one hamburger, not counting the water  needed to grow the grain used to feed the animals while they are producing it. Click on the link for a detailed account of what would happen if the whole world became vegetarian. Otherwise the following clip covers most of the key points.

Of course, it’s never as simple as that. Some of the land would be needed to grow alternative foods and some of these, like almonds for example, also use a lot of water. Rocky or cold regions which aren't suitable for cropping may still support some grazing, and the manure from animals could enrich soils. On the other hand, too much livestock on poor ground can lead to desertification and most lost nutrients can also be replaced by planting legumes. In some countries farm animals are not only a source of income, but also supply fuel and motive power and in some countries - Mongolia for instance, animal husbandry is not just an important part of the culture, but the very basis of it. We would also lose some animal by -products such as leather, fats for making soap and so on.

Still, on the whole, the world could feed twice as many vegetarians as meat eaters and many people, especially young people in developed countries are switching for health reasons and out of concern for the animals which are often raised in appalling conditions. Other environmental benefits would include reducing greenhouse gases by the amount currently being put out by all of the world's cars, trucks and aeroplanes, and reducing the need to keep cutting down rainforests, which not only influence the weather, but are keys to retaining biodiversity. Domesticated animals wouldn't need to be killed off. Farmers would simply raise fewer of them and gradually diversify into other crops. 

[Our household isn't quite there yet, but we have cut our meat consumption by about three quarters, both by halving portions and by having meat on only one or two days a week]. 
Coming soon "What's for Breakfast?"....