Vegan Means… Saving Water
Animal farms not only use up vast amounts of fresh water, says the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization; they’re also the main source of water pollution. Let’s look at both water shortages and water pollution, one by one.
How We Can Save Water
Ocean levels are rising, due to warming seas and the resultant breaking up of ice sheets. Some Pacific islands are now mostly submerged, and whole cultures are being lost. It might seem as though we have too much water in places -- but ocean water is not the same thing as fresh water which can be applied to water crops and provide for our daily needs.
Agriculture uses most of the fresh water that’s available to us. A large percentage of that goes towards irrigating land for feeding and watering domesticated animals. (Only 1.3% of the total water used in agriculture is consumed directly by farm animals, but a lot more water goes to grow the feed for those animals.) We could save a lot of water by avoiding animal agribusiness entirely. Instead, animal farmers are running water sources dry all over the world.
As John Robbins points out, several decades ago there was a big move towards water efficiency in the home. Homeowners installed low-flow showerheads in an effort to conserve what amounted to roughly 2,500 gallons of water per year. This is wonderful; yet a family sitting down to a one meal of hamburgers just used that same amount of water. Imagine if this family were to become vegan. (Yes, we happen to think imagining people going vegan is a great use of time. And we show them just how to make it a reality -- click here to retrieve a PDF of our Vegan Starter Guide)!
Producing a package of animal protein as food demands about 100 times more water than producing its weight in grain-based protein. In the central United States, a person eats about 73 lbs of beef each year and in the northeast about 63 lbs a year. Each of those pounds of beef required well over 2,000 gallons of water to produce. To put this enormous water use into perspective, note that a person requires only about 70 ounces of drinking water a day.
What Animal Farms Do to Water
Water pollution involves animal waste, antibiotics and hormones used on animal farms, chemicals from leather production, fertilizers and pesticides used for feed crops, and sediments from eroded pastures. Among the list of effects generated in large part by agricultural pollution are deterioration of coral reefs, ‘dead’ zones in the oceans, and various health problems for us and other animals.
On industrial farms, farm waste is usually stored in giant tanks called ‘lagoons’, capable of holding millions of gallons of manure and urine. These lagoons can leak, and when they do, raw manure, far more toxic than raw municipal sewage, causes devastating environmental damage. Even at low concentrations, its high ammonia content kills fish.
You’ve probably heard about the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, which dumped 12 million gallons of oil. But did you know about the 1995 New River hog waste spill in North Carolina that poured 25 million gallons of excrement and urine into the water, killing 10 to 14 million fish?
Dissolved ammonia in water can turn into dangerous nitrates, known to cause “blue-baby syndrome” (potentially fatal oxygen levels in babies), and possibly cancer. And manure run-off often contains herbicides, pesticides, toxic chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics.
Animal farms don’t have waste treatment plants. So farmers spray the waste onto their fields as fertilizer. When the fields are saturated, the slurry runs off into nearby waters, resulting in excess levels of nitrogen or phosphorous – causing an overgrowth of algae and suffocating underwater plants and animals. The use of manure as fertilizer spreads toxic substances, such as pharmaceuticals and bacteria, through our food systems.
By reconsidering how we use land, we can bring about changes which affect both the quantity and the purity of the world’s water. Deciding to grow food which requires less water to produce and can be grown with minimal impact on the environment is a key to protecting our planet from further destruction.
Getting the Word Out
A small number of animal rights activists have been arguing for years that animal agribusiness was having a profoundly deleterious effect on the environment. Friends of Animals offered a plenary presentation addressing this subject at the 2004 Summerfest, hosted by the North American Vegetarian Society. At that time, we were a voice crying in -- and for -- the wilderness.
In 2006, Lee Hall’s book Capers in the Churchyard: Animal Rights Advocacy in the Age of Terror underscored the severity of the climate problem, and its strong tie to animal agribusiness.
Meanwhile, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in a release titled “Livestock production an effective use of water in developing countries,” stated: “In Africa we could double water productivity of livestock with little difficulty -- maybe increase it four times” describing a study which, ILRI scientist Don Peden claimed, “indicates that livestock production has high potential for effective, productive and profitable use of water in agriculture.”
Then came the landmark report “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” Released in November 2006 by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, it includes over 400 pages of details of the impact of animal agribusiness on environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, pollution, biodiversity loss, and water shortages.
According to the report, animal agribusiness is probably the world’s largest source of water pollution, and is the cause for the “dead zones” in the waters -- such as the huge area devoid of life in the Gulf of Mexico.
Clearly, global animal agribusiness is as environmentally unsustainable as it is inhumane. We’re working to get the word out, community by community, about its impact.
Becket & Oltjen, “Estimation of the Water Requirement for Beef Production in the United States”, Journal of Animal Science, Vol. 71, Issue 4 (1993).
D. Pimentel & M. Pimentel, Food, Energy and Society - University Press (1996).
Davis and Lin, “Factors Affecting U.S. Beef Consumption” - United States Department of Agriculture (Oct. 2005).
John P. Chastain, “Pollution Potential of Livestock Manure” - Minnesota/Wisconsin Engineering Notes (Winter 1995).
Bernard Nolan et al., “Probability of Nitrate Contamination of Recently Recharged Ground Waters in the Coterminous United States” - Environmental Science & Technology (2002).
Enzo R. Campagnolo et al., “Antimicrobial Residues in Animal Waste and Water Resources Proximal to Large-Scale Swine and Poultry Feeding Operations” - Science of the Total Environment (Nov. 2002).
Barry H. Rosen, “Waterborne Pathogens in Agricultural Watersheds” - USDA Watershed Science Institute (Feb. 2000).
Peter Kobel, “It’s Something in the Water,” Friends of Animals’ ActionLine (Winter 2008).
George Monbiot, “Why Vegans Were Right All Along” - The Guardian (24 Dec. 2002).