Footprint 6

Veggies & Water Footprints 11/26/10

Claire looks at food consumption, the water footprint and gives another good reason to become a vegetarian.

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It’s always brings a good feeling when something you have chosen to do has unexpected positive ramifications. Are you a vegetarian? Well, if you are, then you are already contributing to the conservation of the world’s most important resource: water.

While reading for a previous post, I came across two interesting facts that have encouraging implications for vegetarian diets. The first interesting fact is this:

“…about 85 per cent of humanity’s water footprint is related to the consumption of agricultural products, particularly animal products that generally use much more water per calorific value than crops. This means that if people are considering reducing their water footprint, they need to look at their diet rather than at their water use in the kitchen, bathroom or garden”.

Another nice piece of fact that was delightful to chew on was this:

“The calories produced per cubic meter of water range from 1000 to 7000 for corn and 1260–3360 for legumes such as fava beans compared to 500– 2000 for rice and 60–210 for beef…”

The latter fact comes from a very interesting journal paper that I read on consumption patterns in countries and how this relates to water consumption. Of course, some of the information lends itself to an obvious conclusion; that in countries which are considered developed and have relatively higher economic levels, consumption of water is highest in the world. But it further shows that patterns of meat consumption also play a part in water use.

For example, one measly hamburger has a virtual water content of 2400 litres. Compare this to the 100g potato which uses 25 litres, and you can see how a person who eats meat inadvertently consumes more water than a vegetarian.

The meat industry and water

The meat industry impacts on water in two ways: through using it and through polluting it. Let us start with the consumption of water. The major use of water in the meat industry is for the irrigation of crops to be used for feeding animals. In a report in 2005 it was suggested that about two thirds of the world’s water resources were being used for irrigation and that this was unsustainable. The same study showed that approximately 1000 tons of water is needed to produce 1 ton of stock feed.

This same paper points to the undesirable consequences of both the impact of agricultural fertilisers on the world’s fresh water systems, the degradation of topsoil due to agriculture, as well as the impact of the waste generated through the meat farming process. Have you ever considered that the antibiotics from the farming process also find their way into our water systems? The social and environmental implications of factory farming are just so immense that I could continue on this topic forever, but I am sure that most vegetarians will be aware of some of them.

South Africa

Although not strong on data from South Africa, the paper by Hoekstra and Chapagain does show that our per capita water consumption levels are below global levels. This is probably related to low consumption patterns, due to the low income level of the majority of South Africans, but could also be related to efficient farming methods; although more research would have to be done before making an educated assumption.

This has a number of unsatisfactory implications. Firstly, South Africa is known for its meat industry and, according to foreigners, offers a cheap and healthy supply of meat to the general public. Furthermore, if our GDP increases, so too will meat consumption patterns. What will happen to our water resources if and when people become more well-off? One paper suggests that the 56 billion land animals that are produced for human consumption annually will double by 2050, with most increases occurring in the developing world. We need to promote meat-free or reduced-meat diets in South Africa. Combined with this, we should also promote more efficient farming methods in order to ensure that our per capita water footprint remains low.

What of other agricultural products?

Before we as vegetarians start to get too excited, we need to consider the following: other agricultural products that we eat/use also have a high water footprint. Examples include, rice, coffee and cotton. In fact, rice and wheat utilise 21% and 12% of the world’s water resources respectively. But it is the fact that a large proportion of that wheat is used to feed livestock, and the process of farming meat products results in the wastage of energy and water per calorie, which results in meat having such a high water footprint. This is why it is more helpful to look at the virtual water content of products; a table of which can be found on page 41 of the Hoekstra and Chapagain paper.

On behalf of myself, I must say that it makes me glad to know that I am making an [unexpected] positive difference, in my own small way and I am still waiting for someone to tell me how vegetarians are making a negative impact on the world. (Virtually impossible I think!)

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6 Responses to this article

Bernie November 26, 2010 Reply

I still am not convinced that it is at all practical or healthy to be a strict vegetarian. I do think that people eat too much meat, we should all be at least demi-vegetarians (yes yes you should all be like me!). A water tax on meat products might help. If you can have carbon taxes why not water taxes? It would also be a handy indicator of which meat is more “natural” and better to eat (for the environment) for us meat lovers…

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editor November 26, 2010 Reply

Thanks for the comment Bernie. I think a water tax would be a great idea – but I am not sure the majority of South Africans would agree with you!

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editor November 28, 2010 Reply

This was a comment left on about this post which I thought was worth sharing.

M4124124 said:

For example, one measly hamburger has a virtual water content of 2400 litres. Compare this to the 100g potato which uses 25 litres, and you can see how a person who eats meat inadvertently consumes more water than a vegetarian.

In the interest of facts, this can easily be false depending on the diets of the individuals.

According to

15500 litres of water per kg of beef


5000 litres of water for 1 kg of cheese
3900 litres for 1 kg of chicken meat
5000 litres for 1 kg of millet
3400 litres for 1 kg of rice

So, the cheese-aholic vegetarian could easily match or exceed even a regular chicken eater, and especially someone who only occasionally eats meat but doesn’t eat dairy. And even vegans could exceed occasional meat and cheese eaters depending on their diets.
This is why I think it’s very important to look at the big picture when discussing environmental costs — and why environmental reasons alone do not point to consistent veganism (even if we limit it to just discussion of diet).

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Claire November 30, 2010 Reply

There is a flaw in the logic of the commentator in that I have never met anyone who eats, per kg, more cheese than chicken. Wow, thats a lot of cheese. Nonetheless, I understand what they are trying to say. Hence, the last paragraph of the article warns us that we can inadvertently have a high water consumption pattern even if we are vegetarians. But as Jodi points out, a vegan diet (or vegetarian diet) is still less water intensive. Never mind the fact that the meat industry also pollutes water supplies.

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Jodi Allemeier November 29, 2010 Reply

That article/study compares land, energy, water etc inputs to produce different types (animalv vs plant sources) of protein – I think its a more realistic comparison than 1kg beef to 1kg rice, as it shows 1kg beef protein vs 1kg rice protein, for example. It still consistently shows that a vegan diet uses the least inputs – land, water, energy.

That one speaks some-what to the issue of biodiversity – it shows animals killed directly and indirectly in the production on 1million plant vs. animal calories. Again, the vegan diet kills far fewer animals, including wild animals, insects etc killed in plant production.

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editor November 29, 2010 Reply

I didn’t realise that eggs were quite so destructive (which I suppose is quite obvious when you think about the volume of eggs that are consumed and the large number of chicken batteries needed to produce eggs). I was raised lacto-vegetarian, and have over the last few years often allowed eggs to creep into my diet as it can be difficult to avoid. But, it probably would be best to cut out at least the chicken factory farming aspect of my diet…

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