Did you know it takes 5000 litres of water to produce a normal sized steak? Did you know that water scarcity is recognised as one of the world’s most serious humanitarian threats? Leaving meat off the menu is, as it turns out, by far one of the most efficient ways to help save water.
Water is absolutely essential for human life. We drink it, we cook with it, we use it to grow food and to feed our animals. Therefore, living with water scarcity is both difficult and dangerous though sadly a reality for 700 million people around the globe today. It is also a growing problem – by 2025 an entire two-thirds of the earth’s population will be living in areas where there isn’t enough water. No wonder the scientific community is considering this issue to be one of the near future’s most serious global threats.
It can be difficult to grasp that on our planet – filled with vast, deep, blue oceans – water could be a scarcity. But the problem is that 97% of this water is the salty kind, which us humans can’t use. We need fresh water, which is what the remaining 3% is, though two thirds of this, are locked up in frozen glaciers. So that doesn’t leave us with much, and certainly not enough for an ever growing global population which is expected to rise with perhaps as much 50% over the next 85 years. That is 4 billion more people than today to share the planet’s already very strained water resources.
So what can we do to tackle these challenges on an individual level? Not surprisingly we need to look to our Western lifestyle for some of the most important answers. The way we live – and especially the way we eat – simply isn’t sustainable. In fact, the biggest reason for our depleted water resources, is our enormous appetite for meat. It takes an almost unbelievable amount of water to grow crops for animals to eat, keep them hydrated and to clean dirty factory farms. Choosing plant-based foods over meat is by far one of the most efficient things we can do to save water. Take a look at this graphic (which I found in a recent BBC article here) to understand the scope of the savings one can make based on selection of foods:
I am not suggesting this is the only thing that needs to change. Our shopping behaviour isn’t very sustainable either for example (the water issue around producing blue jeans often comes up as an example). But the fact is that even when comparing industries, agriculture consumes an unrivalled 70% of the entire fresh water humans use. And a very large proportion of the crops isn’t grown for humans directly but for animals that we later kill to eat. The amounts of water these animals require during their years alive are so huge that they cannot even compare to the amounts we use at home showering, doing laundry, cooking, gardening etc. Without a doubt, for the big solutions we need to look to the agriculture segment, where meat production and consumption is at the core of the issue. Eating less meat, is essential.
The graphs above shed light on a huge opportunity that needn’t be overwhelming – imagine saving thousands of litres of water just by choosing to eat say a veggie burger instead of a traditional one. Even if it is your choice only ONE time per week it will be thousands of litres better than doing nothing (and imagine the impact if it happens more often than that). The differences are simply huge. While the beef in the traditional burger requires approximately 115 litres of water for one gram of protein, the pulses (beans and lentils etc) in the veggie burger only need 20 litres per gram of protein.
Another factor behind water scarcity is of course global warming. Areas dry out following the change in climate, and it is happening faster than what scientists expected only a few years ago. And also here, behind these manmade temperature changes, you’ll find meat to be pointed out by experts as one of the biggest offenders. 15% of the measured greenhouse gases come from livestock which is a huge amount and more than for example the entire transport segment.
Though these issues are most immediately a threat to the developing world, don’t be fooled to think Europe and other industrialised regions wont be affected. We import a huge amounts of foods and other goods from countries where water is scarce and both availability and price will be drastically affected by it.
As I travel around the world, people think the only place where there is potential conflict [over] water is the Middle East, but they are completely wrong. We have the problem all over the world. –Kofi Annan
So, if you are looking for reasons to cut down on your meat consumption, saving water is definitely a strong one. And I’m even expecting you’ll truly enjoy it. Try out one of these delicious burgers for example, and save thousands of litres in the process.
To read more, here are my sources: