Consider a shower. It’s refreshing, and with the right utilities put into place, it’s the least wasteful way to keep clean and maintain good personal hygiene. Now, also consider a hamburger. What if I told you that those two had something in common? It’s not advisable to eat a Whopper under the showerhead, no. But the amount of water that went into making that meat patty was equal in gallons to two months worth of showers.
Agriculture accounts for nearly one-third of all freshwater usage in the world. It’s used to grow vegetation and maintain the standards of hygiene, health and safety in farms across the planet, old and new, with organic growth or industrial factory quotas in mind. It’s used to water plants which are eaten by animals which are thereafter raised to be slaughtered for meat. The water that doesn’t go into their mouths one way or the other will still be wasted by the excess in the soil, and in the runoff of the waste disposal.
Modern farming requires immense amounts of resources to stay afloat. The days of leading packs of animals to a riverbed to calmly sip and graze each day are all gone. The rivers are either diverted, drained or filled with the runoff of the farms themselves. The cows and sheep drink in their stalls and the rest of the water goes to the grass fields to grow their food across acres and acres of cleared off, cultivated, and manure-washed land.
The water footprint of modern agriculture is pretty staggering to consider. At any given time you could be contributing to the drainage and waste of dozens of gallons of water without even hearing a single drop from a faucet nearby. It’s all about the production process, and how water is so harshly treated.
It starts at the ground level. In nature, it rains, plants grow, and hold onto their energy until it rains again. Certain places get more rain and have more vegetation, which supports more wildlife to eat it and perpetuate a natural cycle of lives eating lives. Then, agriculture rises and steps itself into the natural cycle to change it.
More importantly, not all areas have tenable land for grazing and farming. Some regions of the world are more arid without being outright deserts, or lack the proper locomotion methods for seeds and pollen to spread. This leads to tougher, less nutritious grass, which means bad grazing grounds.
But all of that can be changed. Through ingenuity and force we’ve learned how to turn just about anywhere into a farmable area. It just takes manure, which is made from animal refuse and often has chemical additives to enrich the soil, and water to grow better plantlife. Then, in a few afternoons, all that grass can be eaten by a sizeable herd of cows or other animals and the whole process repeats from the top.
The manure, often distributed in a liquid form, despite the material it consists of, seeps into the ground and the many stray minerals and vitamins left behind in the matter stays in the soil. But some of it also doesn’t, and goes deeper. It travels down like water does and finds its way into aquifers, river beds and nearby water bodies.
Having a farm on a riverside for many major farming industries is just an excuse to have free waste disposal. Everything washes downstream eventually, after all. Nevermind the fish getting in the way and taking multiple facefulls of toxic pollutants until they choke on them and die. Better to keep it out of sight so the cow’s don’t mind it.
That’s just the first step of water contamination, though. All those pigs and cows get dirty and need baths. They don’t, really. Animals are fine with rain or, at the most, brief splashes every odd time in a pond while they drink. They’re not meant to be perfectly hygienic. They’re supposed to stink, it’s how they get along.
But factories have people working in them, and they’d rather not endure the smell for so long, so even more water goes to washing the animals off car-wash style. And where does the dirty water drain? Sewers, runoff pipes, or just out back into the fields to collect in the soil again.
Also consider the slaughtering and butchering process. Despite how gruesome it can be, there are still standards of hygiene to keep up with. A lot of cuts of meat have to be washed and prepared. Factory floors need to be sanitized. All of that is the duty of clean water, until it doesn’t run clean anymore.
For as much pollution as fossil fuel emissions and industrial waste contribute to the overall portrait of environmental health, animal agriculture is still a major contributor to the scope of water health and safety. A certain brand of meat producing company in America is responsible for more toxic pollutant dumping than certain, name branded, and equally infamous fossil fuel and chemical companies.
Farming always creates some kind of excess, but with animals the level is multiplied to an insane amount. In a world where over 2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, the overuse all over the planet for growing meat is astonishing. It speaks of a gross inadequacy for the needs of some compared to the needs of others.
The main offense to this is that meat, like many things which lead to such results, is a choice that is made. Much of the meat is only consumed by a relatively small portion of the population anyway, but the demand for it is driven so high that the industries use unsafe and terrible practices just to keep up with the ever increasing demand regardless of the consequences.
The description of certain amounts of pollution may be difficult for some to imagine. When the topic of runoff and garbage ruining a natural body of water is brought up, a fast solution tends to be the Ganges river, which overflows with refuse, trash and waste to the point where just living near it is a toxic hazard. However, that reality is closer to home than most realize.
Nearly one-third of all rivers in the United States are polluted by agricultural runoff. The animal excrement from the high, dense populations of animals on farms near rivers is so great that the feces can’t re-incorporate into the soil fast enough, and rather than allowing cow-high piles of dung to accumulate just to wait for it to finally seep through, it gets pushed away and washed out to who-knows-where, as long as the problem isn’t theirs.
Along with the general destruction of environments for industrial purposes and the ever-shifting presence of climate change and global warming, we’re also just running out of drinkable water on this planet. Out of all the water on the surface of the Earth, 2.5% of that can be scooped up and sipped. The rest is too far gone, either naturally or, increasingly, due to manmade interference.
There are concerns that, based on the estimates of meat production, consumption the estimated impact on reserves of water, that shortages might become commonplace. Experts estimate that by the year 2050, global water supplies might end up going dry. Without some solution in sight fast, we’ll either need to all give up meat, and probably many high-maintenance, low-yield crops, or learn to live without water.
The second thing can’t happen, so for now the only logical solution to make is to reduce meat consumption. But how can that happen when it’s a dependable, profitable and available source of protein (though not the best, in any metric) for billions of people worldwide? The entire fast food and food service industry lives and dies off of meats of various kinds. Burgers, fried chicken, pork chops, and even fish tacos all contribute to the decline of the planet’s water and the rampant pollution of what’s left.
There really is no grand solution. Smacking a burger out of someone’s hand won’t replenish the water that made it, it’ll just result in wasted food, which will go in the trash, and then to a landfill which will then accumulate waste from the rotting garbage that seeps into the ground and spreads to local water sources. We’ve gone too far for a fix anymore.
What we can do is simply cut back. There are alternatives to meat that have a far lighter impact on the environment. We can’t stop it, but slowing it down can give room for a real solution to arise. Plant based meat substitutes are beginning to blur the line with real meat and don’t require rinsing out methane-laden waste to produce.
So the next time you see a burger, remember, that meat costs two months of showers. If you have the ability to sacrifice your cleanliness that much to take a bite, then you do you and sacrifice what you can. I’m sure all the cows in the farms will appreciate being eaten by someone who knows the value of their water.