Healthy Living March Issue
NUTRITION AND THE ENVIRONMENT
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
A high volume of water is required to produce meat products compared to
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
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
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
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
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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