Thursday, February 15, 2018

2830. The Water Footprint of What We Eat and the Climate Crisis

By Anita Kaksrud, Cape Chameleon, Februry 13, 2018
Calves with number tags on their ears
South Africa has 1.7 million dairy cows. Their current rain-fed feed will likely be irrigated in the future, exacerbating their already massive water footprint. Photo: Annie Spratt/
Cape Town and its desperate battle to avoid running out of water is a climate change disaster, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, stated this January. While Capetonians are currently in a dire race against time to conserve water, with the local government limiting its residents to 50 litres of water per day, there is another water-intensive culprit to consider: agriculture.
Lorelei Plotczyk, the founder of the Truth or Drought campaign affirmed this: ‘Animal agriculture is a leading cause of climate change and deforestation, both which exacerbate drought.’ Kip Andersen, the producer of the documentary film Cowspiracy agrees. In the 90-minute film, he attributes animal agriculture as the main cause of greenhouse gases, and the main reason for water shortages. ‘It all comes back to animal agriculture, by far,’ he said.
The Western Cape hasn’t had sufficient rainfall for the past three years, and Capetonians are getting a real feel of climate change as the city is currently experiencing its worst drought in over 100 years. Without an eleventh-hour rainfall or overwhelming human intervention, Cape Town will become the first major city to run out of water in the history of civilisation on 11 May.

Agriculture’s effect on drought

The stats are quite comprehensive, even if the conservations around the outcomes are not. Globally, the animal agriculture industry is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than the world’s transportation industry combined. These emissions are also expected to increase by as much as 80% by 2050.
In addition to this, just one cow releases 70 to 120 kilograms of methane per year. In Cape Town, there are about 57,000 cattle. This means that each cow releases up to 6.8 million kilograms of methane each year and the 1.5 billion cows in the world produce 240,752,189 kilograms of methane every day. Considering that methane has a global warming potential 86 times that of CO2 on a 20-year time frame, there is little doubt that livestock and animal agriculture have a major effect on climate change and global warming.
Even if every country immediately met their commitment to decrease carbon emissions, the world is still projected to reach a 2°C increase in temperature, on average. South Africa, on the other hand, would still experience a  4°C increase by 2030, leading to less precipitation in the winter – Cape Town’s rainy season. This is because Africa is especially vulnerable and exposed to climate change, as the fluctuations in temperature have the potential to change wind and ocean circulation.
Watering can watering some plants in the garden
Experts predict that by 2030, 30% of previously rain-fed crops will need water from irrigation, putting even more stress on the limited amount of water in the dams. Photo: Markus Spiske/

Because of this, the Western Cape is expected to become even drier in the future, and reduced rainfall would become the ‘new normal’. In 2016, 15 billion m3 of water was allocated in South Africa. However, South Africa is experiencing and is expected to keep experiencing a growing population, creating a projected 17.7 billion m3 of water demand by 2030. Altogether, the growing need for water, alongside aggravated drought conditions, is likely to hinder Cape Town’s water supply for the foreseeable future. But where is all the water going?

Who uses our water?

Farmers are the leading direct users of water in South Africa, consuming 66% of all water. However, Cape Town is predominantly an urban area and only 29% of the water consumption is due to agriculture. 29% might not sound like a great deal when compared to the national number, but cuts in the agricultural water usage in the Western Cape still made it possible to push Day Zero back almost a whole month from 16 April all the way to 11 May. This gives us a picture of how many million litres of water make up that 29%.
Furthermore, the greenhouse gases produced by agriculture in other parts of the country also play a role in Cape Town’s drought. Water Footprint Network founder Arjen Y Hoekstra explained that globalisation means food consumption in one place often affects water demands elsewhere because water and greenhouse gases have no boundaries. If the food you eat is not produced locally, it will affect the water levels at the place of production. According to Hoekstra, it has become clearer that livestock significantly contributes to humanity’s water footprint and water scarcity.
Everything we use and eat has a water footprint. According to the Water Footprint Network, ‘the water footprint is a measure of humanity’s appropriation of fresh water in volumes of water consumed and/or polluted.’ It basically tells us the stress a product puts on freshwater resources. WWF has calculated the water footprint for different foods based on South African production and total water use, including irrigation (blue water) and rainwater (green water).
Infographic the water we cannot see
WWF has calculated the amount of water used to produce different foods in South Africa. The numbers are shocking and show the impact of consumer choice on water levels. Photo: courtesy of WWF
These calculations reveal that half of a hamburger requires the same amount of water as a 60-minute shower with a water-efficient showerhead, and the water needed to produce a mouthful of steak could run your dishwasher 22 times. One teaspoon of milk is equivalent to one flush of a dual-flush toilet and the average bathtub could be filled six times with one litre.
This is an enormous amount of water. Despite this data, many people are still resistant to cutting down meat in their diet. Plotczyk described how eating fewer animal products is a less direct way of saving water, hence it is harder for people to appreciate. Instead, people focus on direct ways of saving, like household restrictions.
Nevertheless, a family of four could save the equivalent of 17 bathtubs of water by swapping one meal of beef per week with lentils. ‘It sounds glib but we can eat ourselves out of this problem… less meat; more water,’ said Stockholm Water Prize Laureate Prof Tony Allan.
And meat is not the only problem. Dairy has a significant footprint as well. South African dairy production holds about 1.7 million cattle, with production rising steadily over the last decade. Western Cape is the second leading dairy producer in the country by province, supplying 26% of the country’s milk. According to Dr. Heinz Meissner, advisor to Red Meat Producers Organisation, cattle are fed mostly by grazing veld and rain-fed dry land, which means they have a greater green water footprint.
Different kinds of fruit at the grocery store
Although fruit requires less water in general, fruit grown in the Western Cape is highly dependent on irrigation, which makes it a notable user of the same dams as Capetonians. Photo: Jakub Kapusnak/

Fruits and vegetables do have a notable water footprint in South Africa as they require irrigation for growth. Meissner says this irrigated water mainly comes from the Theewaterskloof dam, which also supplies the City of Cape Town with more than half of its water for human consumption. However, the WWF’s infographic illustrates how dairy and red meat require far more water in total than the irrigated apple.
It’s not only the animals themselves that are utilising precious water, but also the crops used to raise them. ‘If you refer to water stored in catchment systems and used for irrigation to grow crops used exclusively for beef cattle farming, then there may be an argument,’ said Meissner when asked about the water footprint of the animal feed. What is certain is that the demand for food will increase. Simultaneously, natural resources are becoming compromised resulting in farmers turning to irrigation for the crops that were previously rain-fed, such as livestock feed. By 2030, there will be a 30% increase in irrigation water for crops, exacerbating the water crisis even further.
If we get to a point where the farmers have to use irrigation to grow the animal feed, it would use water faster than nature can replenish. This would again lead to further restrictions on irrigation water, which in turn effects animal products. It is the rhetorical equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot.
‘We need to re-examine the place meat and dairy have in the diet of modern man,’ Hoekstra stated in his Water for animal products report. He continued, ‘No national water plan in the world addresses the issue that meat and dairy are among the most water-intensive consumer products, let alone that national water policies somehow involve consumers or the meat and dairy industry in this respect.’
‘We need to re-examine the place meat and dairy have in the diet of modern man,’ Hoekstra stated in his Water for animal products report. He continued, ‘No national water plan in the world addresses the issue that meat and dairy are among the most water-intensive consumer products, let alone that national water policies somehow involve consumers or the meat and dairy industry in this respect.’

Alien vegetation are thirsty consumers

Even though animal agriculture is the main user of water in across the globe, South Africa and Western Cape have its own thirsty users in addition to the livestock and irrigation-dependant fruits. Invasive alien vegetation has long been a problem in South Africa as they use more water than surrounding native plants, lowering the water availability by up to 4%.
As a result of this, 2.7 million hectares of land have been cleared of alien vegetation in the past 20 years, freeing up over 2,000 kilolitres of water per hectare. According to Dr. Christo Marais, Chief Director of Natural Resource Management in the Department of Environment Affairs, over 200,000 condensed hectares still need to be cleared. ‘Invasives are very much part of the package to mitigate the impact of drought and climate change,’ Marais said, but also added that the alien vegetation is only responsible for 7% of the Mean Annual Runoff, and therefore he did not consider it the chief contributor to the drought Cape Town is facing.

Drought’s effect on agriculture

The City of Cape Town has implemented water restriction level 6B, which requires agricultural users to reduce usage by 60%. Western Cape Government Department of Agriculture and their GreenAgri programme admitted that monitoring is not done as efficiently as possible due to lack of government capacity and support to farmers. ‘Water supply to irrigation boards will be cut off once restricted quotas are reached. They have in fact already reached their Day Zero,’ Limberg stated.
Red grapes hanging on the vines
Western Cape is well known for its wine production. Grapes have a big blue (irrigation) water footprint, and will likely be even more dependent on irrigated water in the drier future. Photo: Samuel Zeller/

‘Reducing industry will, of course, free up more water, but it comes with job losses and decreases in rural economic activity, potentially increasing urbanisation, which increases pressure on city water supply,’ a GreenAgri representative said. It is estimated that, due to the drought, about 50,000 jobs will be lost in the agricultural sector, one of the biggest contributors to the South African economy and employment in rural areas. The GreenAgri drought fact sheet points out that this will lead to reduced ‘local food security, increasing food prices, the consolidation of production to fewer producers, a decline in export earnings, and a great dependency on food produce import from other regions of South Africa and other countries.’
GreenAgri also explained that a decline in farming profits and water scarcity has left South Africa with less than two-thirds of the number of farms it had in the early 1960s. However, the farmers of South Africa will still need to continue producing enough food to meet the demand of a growing population.
This is a vicious cycle where animal agriculture is the principal contributor to climate change, but also one of the sectors that is hit the hardest by its effects. Angus McIntosh is a farmer at the Spier Bio-dynamic farm and one of the farmers who personally feels the devastating effects of the drought. ‘We are now having to close half of our egg business,’ McIntosh says, and adds, ‘if we don’t have a normal winter rain I will close the whole farm.’

How do we fix this?

‘In a nutshell: we need more efficiency, producing more or the same from less resources, which additionally implies more intensification, as less resources are used per unit product and commodity. Water, of course, is one of these resources,’ Meissner outlined when asked about the Red Meat Producers Organisation’s plan for a sustainable future. So how do we do this?
Raw meat in the butcher's shop

Eating one mouthful of steak is equivalent to the water consumption of running your dishwasher 22 times. Photo: Lukas Budimaier/
Plotczyk explains that only 3% of a person’s water footprint consists of household use, while 73% comes from the food they eat. ‘Since we know most of our water footprint lies with what we eat, then it’s logical that eating a less-water intensive diet has the potential to save more water than anything else you do,’ emphasises Plotczyk.
Plant-based food also has lower greenhouse gas emissions. For example, legumes have a 250 times lower emissions per calorie than beef, and even 20 servings of vegetables still have lower emissions than a single serving of beef. In addition to this, most animals currently grazing in South Africa are dependent on rainwater. However, this is likely to change in the future due to drier conditions, placing more strain on dam water to supply both animal feed and human consumption. So, what is the best way for humans to help curb the effects of climate change and future droughts? The answer is eating a less meat-intensive diet; but, this is easier said than done.

Will switching to a plant-based diet today save Capetonians from the current drought? Unfortunately, probably not. However, water conservation is a marathon, not a sprint, and even small changes in diet today can bring hope for the future. Plotczyk draws a relatable metaphor: ‘It’s like saying you’ve drained your savings account and have been laid off from your job – so should you keep spending and go into debt, or change jobs and start saving money again? Continuing meat-based diets, which are incredibly water-intensive, in the face of drought and water scarcity would be extremely counterproductive, even if the results are hard to see here and now.’

1 comment:

Kamran Nayeri said...

Editor's note: When I posted this article for consideration on the System Change Not Climate Change listserv, David Klein wrote a comment that I post here with his permission. The comment follows:


There are all kinds of percentages floating around for emissions attributed to agriculture. For example, the 2006 FAO report citation linked from Kamran's post below attributes 18% of global GHG emissions to livestock. But in its 2013 report, "Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock," the FAO revised that figure downward to 14.5%. A couple of years or so ago the EPA attributed 10% of U.S. emissions to agriculture, and the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2011 attributed just 6% of U.S. emissions to agriculture with 2.2% to beef production. The Guardian UK pointed to some questionable methodologies of the FAO, stating for example that, "A further problem with the FAO's figures is that they do not account for 'default' emissions - in other words, they do not tell us what greenhouse gases would be released by substitute activities that would become necessary were we to give up meat." E.g.,

"What will be the methane and nitrous oxide emissions from the wild animals that will repopulate the grasslands that cover 29% of the world's land surface? If, after the demise of the US beef industry, the 60 million bison and even larger numbers of deer that once populated the North American plains make a return, how much methane would they generate?"

Some analyses along these lines have been carried out, e.g.,

"Attempts to quantify methane emissions from wild ruminants have been made in the past. Crutzen et al. (1986), for example, estimated that wild ruminants produce about 0.37 Tg/yr (1 teragram = 10^12 grams) of methane. McAllister et al. (1996) estimated wild ruminants (bison, elk, caribou, deer, sheep) in Canada alone produce 0.15 Tg/yr,..."

The vast herds of bison roaming the American great planes prior to the arrival of Europeans had estimated emissions of 9 Tg CH4 year^- 1, comparable to current cattle emissions, though perhaps somewhat less.