Water, a vital substance for human survival, used by the body for balancing internal temperatures, cell health and cell survival, digesting food and processing food waste. Without it, we have an average life span of approximately three days.
Largely, it is assumed that water is an infinite substance. Sure, it would certainly seem that way for us in the developed world; turn on the tap and within an instant we have a supply of fresh, safe-to-drink, water.
But, despite its vitality and contrary to popular belief, water is a finite resource and finite because it is being depleted at a rate much faster than it can be replenished.
While water covers approximately 71% of the Earth’s surface, just 3% of that is considered fresh water (the drinkable stuff, suitable for human consumption). Today, that 3% must meet the needs almost 8 billion people, not only needed for drinking, but for other important human activities: including agricultural and industrial purposes.
It is no surprise then, that with a ballooning population we find ourselves at risk of severe water scarcity. Water scarcity, or the lack of freshwater resources to meet global demand, is a largely overlooked but crucial issue. In the last century, our global water use has grown exponentially, at more than twice the rate of population increase.
According to UNICEF, four billion people – almost two thirds of the world’s population – currently experience water scarcity for at least one month of the year and over two billion people live in countries where water supply is inadequate. Scientists project that, should we carry on business as usual, by 2050, half of the world’s population will be living in areas facing water scarcity.
The climate crisis has a disproportionate effect on some of the most vulnerable areas of the world and water scarcity is no exception. Currently, the most at risk from water scarcity are those less affluent, developing countries: Libya, Lebanon, Iran and Jordan, to name but a few.
But, far from a developing world issue, water scarcity already affects every continent across the globe. Even some of the most affluent areas of the world are being devastated by water scarcity. California, to make but one example, where as recently as May this year, the Governor declared a drought emergency in 41 of the state’s 58 counties.
Often the focus of our discussions on water scarcity are around wasteful household consumption; the number of times we flush the toilet and how long we take in the shower. But, research shows that we should worry as much (if not more) about the meat on our plate, as we do the number of showers we take.
It has been said that our diet makes up the largest part of our water footprint and that pound for pound, meat has a higher water footprint than plant-based products. Indeed, livestock production is a highly inefficient use of water, consuming approximately 20-33% of the Earth’s fresh water supply, a figure which dwarfs that of other industries. For comparison, clothing, an incredibly water intensive industry, is said to consume 2% of the Earth’s fresh water supply.
So, why is raising livestock and poultry for meat, so water intensive? It seems that the answer is in the food that farmed animals require. Farmed animals need a lot of feed; 36% of the world’s crops to be more precise. And of course, crops need water in order to grow. Add to that the drinking water that livestock require and the water needed at various points along the production line and you have a heck of a lot of water.
It is estimated that one 8-ounce portion of beef steak requires approximately 1,232 gallons of water to produce. An equivalent size portion of chicken is approximately 330 gallons. A single hamburger, 616 gallons.
So how does meat consumption compare to other household water use? Well, consider that an 8-minute shower, with a standard water flow of 5-gallons a minute would require approximately 40 gallons. That means, you would use the same amount of water taking an 8-minute shower, every day, for one month, as you would for one portion of beef steak.
And, how does it compare to plant-based food sources? Well take the Beyond Meat Burger, a vegan alternative to beef patties. In a recent study, it was estimates that in comparison to a ¼ pound beef patty, the Beyond Meat Burger has 99% less impact on water scarcity. In addition, the water footprint of Quorn mince is said to be 10-times smaller than the footprint for beef mince.
It would seem that a global shift toward more plant-based eating, is necessary. Indeed, recent research has shown that, coupled with a reduction in our food waste, plant-forward dietary transitions offer the best possible solutions for combating water scarcity at the consumer level.
Water scarcity is a growing issue, and it’s effects could soon be felt by us all. As consumers, our consumption of meat offers us a viable option for reducing our own water footprint (calculate the water footprint of your current diet, here). Change need not be drastic; it can be as simple as swapping a beef burger for a Beyond Meat Burger. Small changes at the individual level can lead to powerful collective action on global issues like water scarcity.