In India, there is a term in the Irrigation Department known as “dark area”. This means a place where there is no point putting a tubewell as the groundwater has fallen below 500 feet. Over the last ten years, more and more areas have become dark. I have an entire block in my constituency which is now being notified as “dark”. This area, Bilsanda, till ten years ago, was flush with ground water.
At an individual level, people are making more of an effort to save water – we turn off the tap while brushing our teeth, we use kitchen wastewater to irrigate our gardens, and many of us have installed water-efficient showers and flushes in our homes. But how much water is used to put food on our plates has to be factored in by water economists, if we are not to have water riots in the near future – a la Karnataka/TamilNadu/Kerala/Punjab/Haryana.
All the food we eat needs water to be grown, processed, packaged and delivered to shops and homes. One calorie of meat needs 10 times the water to be produced as one calorie of grain or vegetable. The production of 1 Kcal of beef needs 10.19 litres of water, while just 0.47 litres is required for 1 Kcal of potatoes, 0.51 litres for cereals, 1.34 litres for vegetables and 2.09 litres for fruit. So the more meat we eat, the more water we use. India is the world’s third largest beef exporter. It is not just the bodies of dead animals that we are sending out. It is our entire water supply.
At a global level, about one-third of the world’s agricultural water usage goes indirectly, or directly, to animal production. The water footprint, or the amount of water involved in production, has been calculated by Mekonnen and Hoekstra, at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, based on the amount of rainwater and groundwater used, and the amount of water polluted during the production of food. The water footprint of meat is vastly higher than that of grains and vegetables. Beef is the meat with the largest water footprint. Of the 2,422 billion cubic metres of water per year used in global animal production, 798 billion cubic metres goes only towards the production of beef.
What is ‘feed conversion efficiency’? This is the amount of input needed to produce a unit of meat. Among the meats, beef has the lowest feed conversion, meaning that the most amount of feed and water is needed for beef to be produced.
A large amount of water is used at different stages of beef production. . An average of 1,62,59,000 litres of water goes into producing one tonne of cow feed. Crops are grown to be fed to cattle and their cultivation requires huge amounts of water. Cows and buffaloes eat upto 20 kgs of feed per day, including paddy, jowar, berseem, cottonseed, mustard or groundnut cakes etc. Since production of one kg of any of these foods uses anywhere between 1,000-2,000 litres, we can roughly estimate that in India, about 20,000-40,000 litres of water are used daily to feed one beef animal. These animals should directly drink 35-75 litres of water per day, depending on the weather. A further 28 litres of water is estimated to be used for washing an animal daily. Approximately 150 litres per cow/buffalo goes into sanitation and manure removal. At the end of its life, when the animal is killed for its meat, about 15,000 litres of water are used hourly to clean the blood, and other parts, from the slaughterhouse. Washing the meat before packaging and transporting is another burden.
If you add this and consider that one animal weighing 300 kg will yield 100 kgs of beef, the production of a single kilo of beef uses over 15,000 litres of water.
Consider this in comparison to the measly 322 litres used to produce one kg of vegetables, 962 litres for fruit, 1,644 litres for cereals such as maize, oats, barley, wheat etc., and 4,055 litres for one kg of pulses.
The production of meat is increasing every year. In India, the export of beef alone has gone from 0.31 million tons in 1999-2001 to 1.56 million tonnes in 2016. This figure is expected to increase. This means that we are using trillions of litres of our precious water resources not even to feed ourselves, but to feed the rest of the world. We are bearing the burden for rich countries like the Middle East that save their own water while importing ours, while various parts of our own country face drought and famine. Export of food requires huge quantities of fuel, which again uses a large volume of water to process. Since we import our fuel, this is another burden.
As shown in the study by the Dutch scientist Hoekstra, the food-related water footprint of a consumer can be reduced by 36% by shifting from a meat-based diet to a vegetarian diet. Try a simple solution – if you eat half the amount of meat, then you use half the amount of water.
This would give the world a lot more water to use for better purposes and help ensure that vital food resources are grown for, and fed, to humans, rather than livestock. The world’s population is predicted to reach a high of 9.6 billion in thirty years. To keep up with this, food production will have to increase by 70% globally, and by 100% in developing countries.
As more food will be needed, more water will be needed to grow this food. A population dependent on meat is unviable to feed. It is a human rights issue as well – it is no longer equitable to spend scarce water to feed some people meat, while other do not even have access to grain.
The dark areas are spreading like a dark shadow. It is only a matter of time before they reach your doorstep and you will have to stand in queues at 2 am for one bucket of water. Then meat will disappear by itself. But by then, the damage will be irreversible.