The NYTs publishes many quality and thought-provoking op-eds, but “Meat Makes the Planet Thirsty” by James McWilliams was not one of them. In fact it was a herd mentality piece that lacked much in the way of critical thinking or analysis, and, judging from the popularity of the piece, its readers eagerly digested it sans rumination. When I saw that it was one of the very top E-mailed articles over at the Times this past weekend, I knew I had to dissect it here on Big Picture Agriculture.
In summary, McWilliams says that we have a bad drought in California and that we would be surprised to know how much water is required to grow the vegetables we get from there, but far worse than that is our water footprint from consuming meat.
McWilliams, a history professor in Texas, authored a book about two famous oxen who were no longer wanted at Green Mountain College in Vermont in 2012. In this op-ed, he uses water input numbers from a recent Mother Jones article that listed water inputs to various kinds of California crops like tomatoes and broccoli.
Citing a Netherlands study, he tells us that…
“Beef turns out to have an overall water footprint of roughly four million gallons per ton produced.”
From that study, he compares beef’s water requirement to sugar beets, vegetables, and starchy roots.
The Netherlands study distinguished between the less water intensive methods of raising beef and the more water intensive methods, whereas it seemed that McWilliams led us to believe that all beef is bad because it uses too much water in its production. Though the study goes into differences in methods of production and types of land, animal, and feed used, McWilliams doesn’t mention those important differences. Although the study mentioned the “equivalent” nutritive differences between beef and starchy vegetables, for example, McWilliams did not. Beef compared to sugar beets? Really, what’s the point of even comparing those two foods in water requirements in view of their grossly different nutritive values?
McWilliams argues against using “blue water”, which is water sourced from storage in lakes, rivers and aquifers, like much of California’s water – to produce beef, though he admits that growing almonds uses more “blue water” than beef does. According to the numbers he gives us, overall beef production uses a mere 3.6 percent “blue water”.
His next point is building a case against alfalfa. He’s right that growing hay uses a lot of water in California to support the livestock and dairy in the state. And he’s right that the current drought is making hay so expensive that many herds are being liquidated or relocated to other parts of the U.S. because hay crops have failed. But, in general, alfalfa is a pretty sustainable crop as compared to many others because it is a long rooted perennial/legume which adds nitrogen to the soil, and thus conserves the soil. You could do much worse if you turned California’s irrigated alfalfa fields into more almond operations, golf courses, or houses. The Land Institute in Kansas has been working to engineer perennial grains for decades, and everyone thinks they have a brilliant objective, so why the hatred of alfalfa?
He goes on to say that because Asia is eating more meat, now we are sending this water-thirsty alfalfa crop out of California to Asia. This is oversimplification, at best, as the reasons for this are related to trade imbalances, and the economics of existing infrastructure like empty shipping containers, along with policy and availability of highly subsidized agricultural water for California’s farmers. It is also crazy to ship distillers grains (DDGS) product to China, or to ship chickens to China to be processed for consumption here in the U.S.
(Though hay grows in other states without irrigation, cattle are more efficiently raised in the milder climate states such as California, and hay is bulky and expensive to move, so it is best raised locally. The hay being exported from California is grown with Colorado River water though there are cattle ranchers north of there who would love to have that hay.)
The next of his points is the Rancho Feeding Corporation’s recent beef recall. What does this have to do with water use in beef production? Very little. Any food recall has water-use waste implications. The water losses incurred by the Rancho beef recall pale compared to throwing away meat scraps dubbed “pink-slime”, but that’s a touchy subject.
Before I get to addressing his conclusion, let’s look at his important omissions. He never mentioned that all beef production is not equal. If you raise grass-fed beef in the Sandhills of Nebraska; or, if you do rotational grazing in Iowa using cattle to fertilize your soil instead of adding synthetic Nitrogen, which in turn makes your soil microbes healthy so that your soil absorbs much more water, then you are farming about as sustainably as you possibly can by integrating livestock, or more specifically beef, into your system.
One of the biggest things going on in our nation today related to water use in agriculture is overproduction of corn in the Midwest, which is price supported by our mandated corn ethanol and crop insurance policies. The process of distilling forty percent of our nation’s corn production into ethanol product is a water hungry process. Ogallala aquifer water and other ground-water is being pumped to grow a fair amount of this corn which we are turning into ethanol, and then we turn around and export some of that ethanol to other countries. Instead, with the right policy in place, we could use the rainfed agricultural areas such as the Midwest to grow some of the crops grown in water-scarce California, like tomatoes. The policy of mandated corn ethanol use has driven up farmland prices and has led to larger farms, two factors which work against the economic success of raising livestock by using water-sustainable practices anywhere in the U.S. Producing meat by using sustainable methods needs to be able to compete economically and is more labor-intensive, but ethanol policy has curbed livestock production more than any other sector of our food system by driving up the prices of corn, hay, land, rents, and marginal lands.
Finally, McWillliams concludes that the “environmental impact of cattle in California” proves that being carnivores on our planet is unsustainable because of climate change, so we need to eat far less meat.
My own conclusions are far different from McWilliams.
By growing the right crop in the right region, we do not “waste” water. Grazers greatly help ecosystems when well-managed on grasslands or rotational grazing systems. Grasses and alfalfa are sustainable land use choices, and the genetics of the ruminant animal are amazing in the way they are able to turn grass into protein or fat. Producing fat by growing canola takes many acres, in comparison to what the DNA of cattle are able to do naturally through either dairy or meat. While it is advantageous in many ways to raise cattle in drier and warmer climates, the inability to feed them during extreme droughts like the one California is now facing can make that impossible.
Grazers not only add nitrogen to the soil, they make it possible for the soil to absorb water and harbor healthy microbiota including earthworms, fungi, nematodes, bacteria and other living fauna which scientists have yet to understand, and which could play a big role in sequestering carbon. How we use our agricultural land has the greatest ecological significance, and flora and fauna have always worked together in good, balanced, sustainable systems.
Although McWilliams message is that too much water is going towards livestock in California, so we should therefore eat less meat, the reality is that California is mostly known for its dairy. California is our nation’s number one milk producer and milk is its most valuable agricultural product. Forty-three percent of that milk is turned into cheese. Although economics will decide how much attrition there will be in the livestock industry in California during this drought, I doubt that the 38 million people living in California want to give up dairy products up anytime soon.