Thirsty hamburgers

I eat meat, but occasionally I act on vegetarian impulses. A recent report about water and agriculture encourages more such action.

 The report, appearing in Nature, says that cultivation of alfalfa, grass-hay and other cattle feed accounts for 23 percent of all water consumption.

 If that abstraction doesn’t jar you, try this: by one calculation it takes 450 gallons of water to produce a single quarter-pounder. For reference, the average American drinks less than one gallon of water per day.

 It’s long been understood that agriculture is the biggest overall consumer of fresh water. That’s meaningless for most people so long as rivers run full and rains fall. But when droughts occur and water gets rationed, we pay attention – or ought to pay attention — to the fact that farms are thirsty places. All sorts of farms.  Consider: it takes five gallons of fresh water to produce a single cultivated walnut.

Disturbingly, the result of this profound thirst – no matter what kind of consumable protein comes of it – is that farmers in need of water have the ability to help turn rivers dry; they also go into the ground and pump it out, thereby accessing the savings banks that aquifers represent.

 There are better ways. Inventors have come up with more efficient irrigation technologies. Agriculturalists have come up with less wasteful ways of growing — no-till farming, for example. Scientists have come up with plant-based beef.

 There’s more, including a proposal to pay farmers to let their lands occasionally lie fallow from time to time. and therefore reduce their water requirements.

Still, water shortages are likely to continue, thanks not only to farmers but to others who deserve some of the blame for rivers going dry: the managers of golf courses, for example, and the proud keepers of green residential lawns.

In short, many of us have a hand in water shortages, and many of us can change our ways to help make a difference. That can include occasionally passing on a big fat juicy hamburger.


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