Water Use & Contamination
Much of the world is running out of water. Over 1 billion people worldwide do not have access to clean water and more than double that amount do not have proper sanitation2. The IPCC predicts that by 2020, between 75 and 250 million people are likely to be exposed to water stress as a result of climate change28. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates that by 2025 there will be 1.8 billion people living with absolute water scarcity and two thirds of the World’s population could be living under water-stressed conditions.
Agricultural production consumes more fresh water than any other human activity29 and demand for water-intensive food items like meat and dairy products is placing increased stress on food production systems30. Farming accounts for around 70% of all freshwater withdrawn from lakes, waterways and aquifers (the accessible underground layer of water)29.
Meat production, such as the feeding of cattle, is a particularly water-intensive process31, 32 and livestock production accounts for over 8% of global human water consumption7. The total water footprint of the United Kingdom is 102 Gm3 (billion cubic metres) per year. This is equal to over 4,500 litres of water per person per day.
Agricultural products account for 73% of the total water footprint33 with meat, milk, leather and other livestock products accounting for 23% of global water use in agriculture, equivalent to more than 1,150 litres of water per person per day34. Meat produced in different parts of the world requires different amounts of water due to variations in species, rainfall, hygiene standards, drinking needs, slaughter, butchering, cleaning, packaging and also the water required to grow the animals’ feed. As a result, estimates of the water required to produce a kilo of beef vary, from 13,000 litres29 right up to 100,000 litres35.
Whichever figure you use, the damage is plain when you consider that the water required to produce a kilo of wheat is somewhere between 1,000-2,000 litres.
Rearing animals for meat also contributes significantly to water pollution, with animal waste, antibiotics and hormones entering the water cycle alongside chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and the pesticides used to spray feed crops. Food manufacture is one of the most water intensive activities in the world and it takes far less water to produce plants than meat. A vegetarian diet helps to decrease water consumption and pollution. Manure, or waste water containing manure, severely harms river and stream ecosystems. Once pollutants, including nitrogen, phosphorus, antibiotics and pesticides, reach the waterways they cause a great deal of damage to aquatic and human life. Algal blooms are a particular problem, blocking waterways, using up oxygen as they decompose and killing the natural populations of fish36. In large amounts, animal waste can present major problems to the waterways and surrounding environment.
More than 2 billion tonnes of animal manure were produced worldwide during the late 1990s. Assuming an average nitrogen content of around 5%, this makes 100 million tonnes of nitrogen6 finding its way into our water system. In the Gulf of Mexico, pollutants in animal waste have contributed to a "dead zone" where there is not enough oxygen to support aquatic life. During the summer of 2004, this dead zone extended over 5,800 square miles36.
Food manufacture is one of the most water intensive activities in the world and it takes far less water to produce plants than meat. A vegetarian diet helps to decrease water consumption and pollution.
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