A new study reveals that production of animal-based foods, such as hamburgers, steak, and ice cream, is draining rivers in the western United States. A whopping third of all consumed water is used to irrigate crops fed to cattle raised for meat and dairy. In the Colorado River basin, it’s 50 percent!
The study, led by Brian Richter, a water expert at Sustainable Waters, tracks water taken from rivers and streams to where it is used to irrigate crops. Much of the water is brought to farms or counties that grow feed for cattle. The study concludes:
We find irrigation of cattle-feed crops to be the greatest consumer of river water in the western United States, implicating beef and dairy consumption as the leading driver of water shortages and fish imperilment in the region.
Richter and his team investigated how fish living in those tenuous waters are affected. Nearly 700 species of fish face extinction because of low river flows. Marguerite Xenopoulos, an aquatic ecologist at Trent University in Ontario, stated, “When water is taken out of the river, and it’s tied to some aspects of species life cycles of the fish, they can be particularly hard hit.”
Ecosystems and communities depend on these rivers that are drastically overused to satisfy America’s appetite for beef and dairy. The study finds that choosing more environmentally friendly foods is the key to water conservation:
Long-term water security and river ecosystem health will ultimately require Americans to consume less beef that depends on irrigated feed crops.
Luckily, it’s easy to make a positive difference by choosing delicious plant-based foods! In general, animal products have a larger water footprint than plant foods. Per calorie, the water footprint of beef is 20 times larger than that of cereals, and we use 7.6 times more water to produce a calorie of beef than to produce a calorie of vegetables.