Fires have been raging across the western part of North America. We’ve experienced drought conditions for several years, and the hot dry weather of this last summer caused British Columbia to suffer through the worst fire season they’ve ever seen. According to the Missoulian, the Missouri fires have been the worst in decades. The mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, said that they had experienced the largest fire in the city’s history. Fifteen hundred homes have been lost to the fires in northern California.
Southern California has been particularly hard hit by drought for several consecutive years. The large population, centered in a natural desert, has led to depletion of both waterways and aquifers. That is a tragedy, not just for Californians, but to the entire nation. California has been called the nation’s fruit and vegetable basket. As writer Brian Palmer reminds us, “California produces a sizable majority of many American fruits, vegetables, and nuts: 99 percent of artichokes, 99 percent of walnuts, 97 percent of kiwis, 97 percent of plums, 95 percent of celery, 95 percent of garlic, 89 percent of cauliflower, 71 percent of spinach, and 69 percent of carrots (and the list goes on and on).” The drought threat to California is a threat to American agriculture.
What is the cause of this drought? Bill Gabbert, reporting on findings by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), said, “Nationally, according to NIFC, 8.4 million acres have burned so far this year, which is 47 percent higher than the 10-year average to this date.” The US Department of Agriculture blames the escalating fires on Global Warming, “Climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970.“ There is no relief in the foreseeable future.
Water has become a major concern even in locations where rainfall has been normal. Since the 1930s, groundwater irrigation has enabled farmers to grow thirsty crops like corn on the Great Plains even during drought years by tapping into the aquifer beneath their land. The great Ogallala aquifer spans eight states, from North Dakota to Texas, at the heart of the US. Farmers have relied on it as a dependable source of water over the generations without thinking about the possible consequences.
As a result of this exploitation, the Ogallala is in trouble. Jane Braxton Little, in an article for Scientific American, has said that it is now 150 feet lower than when they began to tap it. Farmers have been forced to abandon their wells. If depleted, she laments, it would take over 6,000 years for the Ogallala to replenish. It will be almost completely depleted in 50 years. In many places, the groundwater has already dried up. A two mile long crack has recently opened up in Arizona, which scientists have identified as directly caused by the depletion of the groundwater due to irrigation. And it’s not just in North America, aquifers are being depleted all over the world. In Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Feed crops are the culprit behind this intensive use of water. According to a report from Cornell University, “The 7 billion livestock animals in the United States consume five times as much grain as is consumed directly by the entire American population.” According to a report prepared by Sandra Postel for Scientific American, “Animal products are the single most important factor in humanity’s water footprint” and “we need to re-examine the place meat and dairy have in the diet of modern man.”
Between the water used to irrigate feed crops and pasture, and the water livestock drink directly, animal agriculture is drinking us dry. Dr. Richard Oppenlander, author of Comfortably Unaware, has concluded that “More than ½ of all the water used in the United States is, in one way or another, given to livestock.” UNESCO’s Institute for Water Education reported that, “the production of a meat based diet typically consumes twice the amount of water as compared to a vegetarian diet.”
Researchers at the Stockholm International Water Institute found that in order to keep up with the growing population we must transition to a primarily plant based diet in order to avert catastrophe by 2050. Malik Falkenmark and his colleagues warn that there will only be enough water if the entire world population limits animal protein consumption to 5% of their total calories consumed. That is hardly surprising. A report prepared for the California Water Education Foundation by Marcia Kreith reveals that it takes 2,463 gallons of water to produce one pound of hamburger. That is over eleven times as much water as it takes to produce tofu (219.40 gallons/pound).
Recently, in order to ease the burden on California water usage, the media has encouraged people to drink less almond milk, claiming that almonds require a great deal of water to grow. It’s true that it takes 23 gallons of water to produce one cup of almond milk. It takes much less water to produce soy, at just nine gallons of water per cup of soy milk. However, cow’s milk takes a whopping 63 gallons to produce just one cup. That’s three times the amount it takes to produce almond milk, and seven times as much as soy milk. Cows are the real water hogs.
In their book Overtapped Oasis, Marc Reisner and Sarah Bates wrote, “Cows are poorly adapted to arid environments. They are profligate consumers of water. Beef production demands an estimated 3,430 gallons of water just to produce one steak! …The removal of water from streams and aquifers for irrigation threatens many species with local extinction. Rivers and springs are often completely dewatered. According to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, some 3,778 miles of river are dewatered in Montana annually. Dewatering of streams is a major factor in the decline of many fish species across the West, including most native trout and many salmon stocks.”
Cows, as has been said, are profligate consumers of water. The average elephant weights about 12,000 pounds, and drinks 60 gallons of water a day. It would take eight cows to equal the weight of one elephant, yet each cow consumes that same 60 gallons of water per day. That means per weight, cows drink eight time the amount of water that an elephant drinks! We need to stop wasting our precious water on dairy and beef cattle.
In an interview with Los Angeles Times publisher Austin Beutner in 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown parenthetically asserted, “If you ask me, you should be eating veggie burgers” (quote can be heard just after the 45 minute mark). The most significant thing that you can do as an individual to spare our declining water supply is to eat a plant based diet.