Beef: Menace to our Water Supply?

In the current water crisis, water restrictions requesting Cape Town’s residents to cut down their watering and not fill up their pools is barely slowing the rate of dam level drop. There is, in fact, a more menacing culprit responsible for water consumption: food production.

The average person is unaware of how water intensive it is to produce common food products. Everyday products use a finite volume of water during their entire production process: 140 L of water is needed to produce a single cup of coffee, about 4 000 L for 1 kg of chicken and a whopping 15 000 L is required to produce 1 kg beef.

Agriculture is the global leader in water consumption, claiming over 70 percent of water that is available for human use. The largest portion of this is used for the production of meat. Beef is generally more expensive than other meat products and water is used in every step of the inefficient production process. A great deal of water is needed to feed the crops which in turn, feed the cattle. Water is also needed as drinking water for the cattle and during the processing, packaging and transport stages.

Increased demand for meat over the last two decades can be attributed to increased global development of diet cultures that are centred around meat. In South Africa, the consumption of meat has dramatically increased over the last 20 years as a result of increased income and standard of living (2014 Euromonitor International category report). Another reason for the increased demand for meat over time can be due to the exponential population increase over the last few decades. The world population is estimated to reach 8.3 billion by the year 2030 and the Food and Agriculture Organization expects the global food demand to increase by 60% by the year 2050.

Possibly the biggest problem during the current water shortage not only in South Africa, but also globally, is that the general population is unware of the impacts of the beef industry. Regardless of the fact that it would be considered extreme to promote an entirely vegetarian lifestyle to save water, it would be nearly impossible for South Africa to completely move away from meat. However, it would be in our best interest to move away from this current dietary trend. If the people of South Africa opted to eat red meats less regularly and consumed more vegetables and white meats such as pork and poultry, this would greatly reduce our water footprint.

Even the purchase of organically grown food would help the cause as this type of farming uses less water than commercial farming. The population’s move toward the organic food industry has been slow as it is quite expensive relative to the cheaper and more popular, processed alternatives. However, the current global concern about the use of hormones and chemicals in commercial farming – which is gaining momentum – may change South Africa’s stand on organic food.

Hopefully, this is something for us to consider the next time we find ourselves at the supermarket, as more conscious decisions regarding what we eat could go a long way in conserving our precious water supplies.

This video explains just how devastating our continued dependence on beef products will be:

By Zita Harilall, BSc (Hons) Earth Science Student



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