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August 31, 2012

Animal Agriculture’s Drain on World Water Week

  • Raising animals for food requires significant water resources.  HSI

This week marked the 22nd annual World Water Week, an international conference where new research, innovative policy and people of diverse backgrounds converge to address global water challenges.  Given the breadth of water-related problems and their very real, devastating impacts now and into the future, this week should also serve as a wake-up call for what each person can do to help conserve water.  People tend to think about shutting off the water while brushing their teeth or taking shorter showers, but eating habits also play a role. Research suggests that meat reduction in one’s diet can have an impact on our water footprint. The organizers of this week’s conference, the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), also just released a report that discusses the importance of dietary choices in light of projected water scarcity and population in 2050.

Animal agriculture and water

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, animal agriculture is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”  It is a key contributor to climate change, deforestation, water pollution and water use.

A recent peer-reviewed study on animal agriculture’s water footprint[i] found that it makes up 29 percent  of the global agricultural water requirements. Every day, animal agriculture consumes a shocking 6.6 trillion liters of water, 98 percent of which is for animal feed, the study also found. Animal products generally have larger water footprints than non-animal products.  For example, beef production requires more than 50 times as much water per ton as vegetables.  Even in terms of protein, the water footprint is six times bigger for beef, and one and a half times larger for chicken, eggs and milk, than it is for legumes.  Each person could help decrease her water footprint by reducing consumption of animal-based protein.

It’s clear the global human appetite for animal products is growing at unsustainable rates. Farm animal populations have more than tripled over the past 40 years.  Many of these animals are raised in intensive farm animal production systems, or “factory farms,” which are particularly harmful for animal welfare and have been shown to cause serious water pollution problems.

The way forward

While we need all hands on deck to address global water shortages, the good news is that we don’t have to wait for policymakers, more regulations, or for large animal agribusiness to make changes.  Individual choices matter.  In the U.S., an average household shifting from a red meat and dairy to a vegetable-based diet just one day a week reduces greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to driving about one thousand miles less per year.[ii] And adopting a completely vegetarian diet can reduce your food-related water footprint by nearly one-third.[iii]

You can help animals and the environment every time you sit down to eat by joining “Meatless Monday,” a popular international movement that began in the U.S. during World War I and was revived in 2003 with backing from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Its participants cut out meat one day a week for human health and the health of the planet.  A growing number of schools and hospitals in the U.S. are embracing the movement, as are people and institutions around the world.  For example, the city of Ghent, Belgium, encourages going meat-free one day per week, and "Meatless Monday" has spread to Sao Paulo – the largest city in South America.

Animal agriculture is straining the world’s water supply, but we can change that. Check out Humane Society International’s Meat-Free Guide for great ideas to get you started, and share this award-winning video with your friends.

[i] Mekonnen MM and Hoekstra AY. 2012. A global assessment of the water footprint of farm animal products. Ecosystems 15:401-415.

[ii] Weber CL and Matthews HS. 2008. Food-miles and the relative climate impacts of food choices in the United States. Environmental Science & Technology 42(10):3508-3513.

[iii] Mekonnen MM and Hoekstra AY. 2012. A global assessment of the water footprint of farm animal products. Ecosystems 15:401-415.

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