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Healthy Living March Issue

Water Supply and Our Food Choices

Our needs extend beyond proper nutrition. We also need adequate supplies of water. In fact, many believe that looming water shortages will cause food scarcity to pale in comparison. Even in the United States, many areas of the nation have become well acquainted with water rationing. Prohibitions on car washing and lawn watering may seem like more of a nuisance than a crisis. Yet, water shortages can reach crisis proportions in relatively short periods of time. In America, some experts believe that current dietary choices-and the agricultural practices thus made necessary-are heading us toward the precipice of serious water shortages. What could possibly be jeopardizing the apparently limitless supplies of water in the U.S.?

A high volume of water is required to produce meat products compared to producing grain.

The amount of water used to produce a given amount of meat products could grow ten times as much corn, and six times as much wheat. Perhaps these figures become more meaningful when you consider that the average U.S. citizen demands approximately 100 gallons of water each day to produce only the animal products he eats in the form of meat, milk, and eggs. This is an amount equal to that person’s daily use of water for all home uses.

The American Cattleman’s Association has cited U.S. Department of Commerce and U.S. Geological Survey statistics that better indicate the intensive water needs of livestock. Their data is in the form of the percentage of our total water usage taken by agriculture.

With these statistics, we can readily calculate that 14 percent of all the water used in the U.S. goes toward raising livestock. Another way of looking at the huge amounts of water used in livestock raising is to look at some of the statistics quoted by the Beef Industry themselves. These are shown in Figure 15: Water Usage per Year for Beef Production.

Put another way, if all the U.S. beef cattle were being raised on one huge range and farm, it would take 7 million shipments of one million gallons of water each to supply their needs just for one year.

In many parts of the world, water availability is a life or death issue. Even here in the U.S., our demands for foods with high water requirements have serious economic and ecological consequences. Historically, the economic costs have been largely hidden due to federal and state government subsidization of the meat industry’s water consumption. Many may not realize that their tax dollars have been helping to provide the large quantities of water needed to raise livestock.

Congress has estimated that Western states have received more than $2 billion in water subsidies annually. Up to $1 billion of this amount has gone to farmers who raise animal feed. The farmers are able to raise livestock feed very profitably because they can buy water cheaply from federal irrigation projects. Sometimes they pay less than the actual cost to deliver the water to their farms. As a case in point, the huge Central Valley Project in California supplies irrigation water to farmers at a small fraction of its actual cost.

Sandra Postel of the Worldwatch Institute points out that in the face of these huge price supports for water used to produce livestock feed-such a scenario would not likely occur were the farmers to pay what the water really cost.

Water subsidies are just one example of how livestock producers do not pay their fair share when it comes to environmental concerns. Durning and Brough, also of the Worldwatch Institute, have made this observation: "All told, the price of meat might double or triple if the full ecological costs were included in the bill. These costs include fossil-fuel combustion, ground water depletion, agricultural-chemical pollution, and methane and ammonia emission."


It seems that we are standing on the verge of a major conceptual breakthrough. Just as the majority of Americans recognize that smoking habits have both personal and societal effects, so many are beginning to realize that eating habits have effects far beyond their impact on personal health. Indeed, it is amazing to realize the large extent that our dietary choices influence not only our own health, not only the health of our children, but also the health and well being of the entire world. It is no exaggeration to say that in some respects our seemingly small daily individual choices ultimately affect the destiny of life on our planet. And perhaps no choice impacts global destiny as much as one decision that is among our most basic and personal choices-what we put on our plate.

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