ENVIRONMENT: THE LOOMING WATER CRISIS (Second of Three Parts)

“The large water footprints for beef, pork and other meats indicate the large volumes of water used for their production. They also suggest a great use of resources beyond water.” – Kai Olson-Sawyer

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Some people believe crop production consumes a lot of water.  But so is producing food from livestock. “Agriculture uses about 70% of the world’s available freshwater, and one-third of that is used to grow the grain fed to livestock,” the Worldwatch Institute reports.

Livestock includes dairy cows and heifers, beef cattle and calves, sheep and lambs, goats, hogs and pigs, horses, and poultry.

Beef, the meat used in most fast food outlets, is by far the most water-intensive all of all meats.  “The more than 15,000 liters of water used per kilogram is far more than is required by a number of staple foods, such as eggs (3,300 liters per kilogram), milk (1,000 liters), or potatoes (255 liters),” the Worldwatch Institute says.

The US Department of Commerce 1992 Census of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey, published in 1994, reported that one pound of pork needs at least 1,630 gallons of water to produce but in contrast one pound of beef requires 5,214 gallons of water.

“Producing beef is much more resource-intensive than producing pork or chicken, requiring roughly three to five times as much land to generate the same amount of protein,” the Worldwatch Institute points out.

The livestock industry has been identified as a “pressing global crisis,” to quote the words of David Yeung, founder of Green Monday.

“I think when we talk about urgent, the most pressing global crisis when it comes to sustainability, (the) livestock industry is most probably the most overlooked industry that people do not know about,” Yeung was quoted as saying by CNBC.

The world is home to more than 7 billion people.  The population is expected to reach 9 to 10 billion in the near future.  Now, add the need to feed any livestock that humans are raising, and the crisis becomes all the more challenging, he pointed out.

According to Yeung, the world has 2 billion pigs, close to 2 billion cows, and over 20 billion chickens.  The livestock industry alone, he said, “consumes a disproportionate amount of land and water.”

The problem has something to do with the animal’s efficiency to turn its food into body mass known as feed conversion ratios (FCR).  It simply means identical units of feed to meat; that is, feed: meet.

John Hopkins University’s Dr. Robert Lawrence, who has conducted a study on FCR, calculates the approximate ratios of some livestock are as follows: 7:1 for beef, 5:1 for pork and 2.5:1 for poultry.

“The larger the animal, the larger the percentage of that animal’s body mass is inedible material like bone, skin and tissue,” Kai Olson-Sawyer, a senior research and policy analyst in the Grace Water and Energy Programs. “This is why beef conversion ratios are the highest and it takes exponentially less water and energy inputs to produce grains, beans and vegetables than meat.”

Now, the bad news is: Global meat consumption and consumption have increased rapidly in recent decades, with harmful effects on the environment and public health as well as on the economy, according to research done by the Worldwatch’s Nourishing the Planet project.

 “Worldwide meat production has tripled over the last four decades and increased 20% in just the last 10 years,” it said.  “Meanwhile, industrial countries are consuming growing amounts of meat, nearly double the quantity than in developing countries.”

Livestock water use is water associated with livestock watering, feedlots, dairy operations, and other on-farm needs. Other livestock water uses include cooling of facilities for the animals and products, dairy sanitation and wash down of facilities, animal waste-disposal systems, and incidental water losses.

“Although total body water is regulated within fairly narrow limits for individual animals, it varies considerably for different genetic, environmental and physiological conditions,” wrote Dr. D.C. Church in his book, Livestock Feeds and Feeding. “Body water takes up more than 50% of total body weight and many tissues contain 70-90% water.”

Water content is highest in newborn animals and others that have a high percent of lean body mass.  In adult animals, the proportion of the body which is water varies inversely with the amount of fat in the body.

With less water, the growth wanted in a livestock may not develop into their full potential.  “Water restriction results in a reduction in feed intake accompanied by a reduction in production,” Church wrote.

Aside from livestock, another area in food production that use a lot of water is aquaculture, the raising of fish in lakes, rivers and other bodies of water.  “Philippines’ fisheries are moving from marine capture to aquaculture,” said Benjamin Tabios, assistant director for administrative services in the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. “We are trying to reduce the impact of fishing on the environment.”

Aquaculture, once known as “the foster child of agriculture,” has now come of age; it has been identified as possible solution to the dwindling fish catch in the open seas. 

Fish farming is more advantageous than raising livestock. “For every kilogram of dry feed, we get one kilogram of fish meat,” said Dr. Uwe Lohmeyer of the Deutsche Gesselschaft fur Technische Zusammernarbeit (GTZ), a German Technical Cooperation. “This is far more favorable rate than in the case of say, pigs: to produce the same quantity of pork, a farmer – given the same quality of inputs – has to provide three kilograms of feed.”

Unlike livestock raising, raising fish is rather intricate.  “Aquaculture is much more complex than farming of traditional terrestrial species, particularly because it is conducted in water, not just with water,” explained Michael New, founder of Aquaculture Without Frontiers.

However, he dispelled the myth that aquaculture is a big user of water.  “It’s not a major consumer of water, and that’s a plus for aquaculture,” New pointed out.  “The water can generally be reused, either for further aquaculture, or for agricultural purposes like irrigation, although there are losses of water due to evaporation.”

In some instances, multi-use of water can be practiced.  New shared this bit of information: “For example, more than one species can be grown together if they occupy different environmental niches: you can have polyculture – different species grown together in the same enclosure, such as a pond – and co-culture – one species grown in a cage within a pond containing the other species.”

Other types of the multiple use of water in aquaculture include rice-fish culture, rice-prawn culture, rice-prawn-fish culture, and fish culture combined with aquaponics.

Studies have shown that it requires only 50 liters of water to raise one kilogram of fish.  “In comparison to the amount of water required to raise other forms of animals, aquaculture has a vital role to play in our global water crisis as an industry that can produce a healthy form of protein with minimal water usage,” said the website, aquaafrica.co.za. (To be concluded)