Philip Lymbery | Conserve Water: Turn The Tap Off On Factory Farming
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Conserve Water: Turn The Tap Off On Factory Farming

Image Credit: Ilona Budzbon

Today – Friday 22nd March – is UN World Water Day.

My research in California showed me that one of the biggest things we can do to preserve water, now and into the future, is to stop factory farming, a major driver of water misuse worldwide.

Central Valley is the beating heart of California’s land of milk and honey. It is a hugely productive area for agriculture and generates about 40 per cent of the nation’s fruit, nuts and vegetables. Yet it is so arid that it relies on a hugely expensive and complex system of artificial irrigation, which is simply proving unsustainable.

By 2015, California found itself in the fourth year of a prolonged dry spell that some labelled a ‘hundred-year drought’. Great swathes of the nation’s most productive soils lay parched and cracked. Farmers would crumble bone-dry clods in their fingers and look to the sky, longing for rain.

Californian Governor, Jerry Brown, caused uproar at the time when he announced compulsory water-use limits on household use of water.

Why did people question his judgement?

Grass fed is much better for water conservation

Because whilst individual households shouldered the burden, some of the biggest culprits of water overuse were exempt from the measures: large industrial farms.

More than 90 per cent of California’s water use is associated with agricultural products. Meat and dairy alone account for nearly half of the state’s so-called ‘consumptive’ use of water, meaning that the water extracted can’t be replaced.

Critics argued that Governor Brown’s mandatory reductions in domestic water use would achieve very little. Cutting a quarter off things like watering lawns, drinking water and taking showers, which combined only constitute 4 per cent of California’s water uses, would only curtail total water use by about 1 per cent: a drop in the bucket.

And whilst California provides a particularly stark example, the role of factory farming in running water supplies dry is increasingly a global phenomenon.

California’s mega-diaries both use and pollute precious water

Meat and dairy products from industrial farms have especially large water footprints due to the water-intensive feed required to raise the animals. The amount of water used in producing a kilo of beef would keep a person in daily baths for three months. A kilo of chicken takes twenty-four bathtubs of water.

Feeding animals on grass can hugely reduce the toll on rivers and underground water sources. Rearing them on factory farms where they are grain-fed is over forty times more water-intensive.

Prolonged droughts are nothing new for California. The state’s climate history is marked by much longer episodes, including mega-droughts lasting 100 years.

What is new is that California now supports tens of millions of people and a large and thirsty industrial farming industry.

The picture is mirrored in many other parts of the world where water is in dwindling supply. Already more than a billion people live in conditions of extreme water shortage.

By the middle of this century, between 4 and 7 billion people could be living in areas where water is scarce.

England, known for its prolific rain, was rocked recently when the Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan, warned that within 25 years, the nation will not have enough water to meet demand.

National media coverage cited climate change and population increases as driving factors, but seemed to overlook the role of industrial agriculture.

Agriculture is by far the biggest user of water, taking 70 per cent of the planet’s freshwater. Overall, the amount we divert from rivers or pump from underground aquifers is expected to rise by nearly a fifth by 2050.

Quite where all this extra water is going to come from isn’t clear.

What it does show is that the biggest single thing we can do this UN World Water Day is to reduce our meat and dairy consumption, ensuring that what we do eat comes from non-industrial sources such as pasture-fed, free range or organic.