Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Eat less water - Part 1

By now the notion of eating water will probably make sense.

Water is a renewable but finite resource, and food production requires a lot of energy and use of finite resources, such as water.

During the Christmas break my family enjoyed a joint of roast beef. An ordinary thing to do, right?

The thing is, when I see a chunk of beef, I don't see a mere meal.
I see a piece of an animal organism that requires a lot of energy to produce, with a large carbon and virtual water footprint.

This is how...

Take a look at this graph from the UNEP website showing the trends in global water use by sector:

Vital Water Graphics, UNEP

This source is from 1999, demonstrating such data has been around a few years, and the projections are clear: the agriculture sector clearly surpasses not only the domestic but also the industrial use of water in terms of extraction and consumption.

Going back to the visual set of FAO's factsheets on water, more recent data shows the agriculture sector accounts for 70% of our planet's water use.


The main data set for agriculture is at 1'40''.

Within the agricultural sector, beef in particular is one of the most water-needing types of agricultural good to produce.
Considering a variety of sources, it requires a staggering 15,000 - 15,500 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef.

In fact, according to "The Green, Blue and Grey Water Footprint of Farm Animals and Animal Products" study by Mekonnen and Hoekstra published by UNESCO, (for differentiation of green, blue and grey water please refer to my previous post on Shades of Water), findings showed that beef cattle have the largest contribution to the global water footprint of farm animal production, at 33%, followed by dairy cattle and pigs (19% respectively) and broiler chickens (11%).

That is also the reason why so many water footprint calculators, ask to specify what kind of meat consumer we are. Take a glance at ones I mentioned in my first post.

Projected increase in demand and therefore production of animal products indicated that this sector is going to carry on adding pressure on the Earth's freshwater resources (Mekonnen and Hoekstra, 2010).

What could effectively decrease our water footprint: better feed for the animals? A shift in our diets?

For someone who is used to eating animal-free vegan food, and happy to so, the answer is a no brainer, the connection between daily meals and water scarcity issues is clear and an obvious one.

However, more general factors need to be taken into consideration and addressed from the food production point of view in order to understand why there has been such a strong trend leading us, the human species, to consume more and more animal products that are draining the Earth's water resources both directly and indirectly.

The main driver in increased demand of animal products since the 1980s has been stimulated by improvements in economies and people's disposable income.
Higher demand meant that animal production had to be intensified and shifted from grazing to a more intense and industrial system, itself triggering a diversification in animal feed, which had a different - higher - water footprint (Mekonnen and Hoekstra, 2010).

Different stages of agriculture require uses of water that make it add up to such large quantities: production of the meat and requirements of water directly for the animals and water to grow their feed, water to look after the animals and water needed during processing, transportation and packaging.

In addition to all this, these processes involve practices which pollute ground and surface water. This takes place both when the animals are growing and in slaughterhouses (FAO).

Out of all the water needed to produce animal products, the biggest factor making animal products' water footprint so high is the water needed for animals' feed (Hoekstra, 2012)...

(To be continued in Part 2)

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