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Water

 

 

Water Scarcity

 

Red meat production consumes an immense amount of water, both by the animals themselves and for growing crops used as feed.

Beef cattle are responsible for almost half of the water used in U.S. livestock production. According to some estimates, it takes more than 1,600 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef and more than 500 gallons to produce one pound of pork. In contrast, plants needed to make plant-based foods, such as wheat, require only 25 gallons of water per pound.

Water-intensive crops, like corn and soy, are cultivated to be used for livestock feed. Globally, 41% of the water used in agriculture goes to produce livestock feed. In the Colorado River basin, 56% of the water (over one trillion gallons) is used to grow feed for livestock in a typical year.

The excessive use of water for livestock has led to water scarcity in some regions of the U.S. This scarcity has become exacerbated as a result of increased temperatures and more frequent and severe droughts associated with climate change.

 

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Animal Waste

Animal waste from food production, particularly from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), significantly contributes to water pollution. CAFOs are agricultural operations where animals are kept and raised in confined situations, and they generate about 500 million tons of waste, including manure and wastewater. This waste often contains a variety of pollutants, including:

  • biologic pathogens (e.g., E. coli, campylobacter, and salmonella);

  • hormones (e.g., estrogens and androgens);

  • antibiotics (e.g., tetracyclines and fluoroquinolones);

  • nutrients (e.g, nitrogen, phosphorus, and ammonia); and,

  • heavy metals (e.g., zinc and copper).

Improperly managed waste often contaminates surface water and groundwater, primarily through runoff and during flooding events.

The impact of this pollution on the environment and human health can be severe. Nutrients encourage the growth of harmful algal blooms, reduce oxygen in surface waters, and contaminate drinking water. Pathogens present in the waste cause diseases in humans, including skin irritation, respiratory illness, and gastrointestinal illness. Moreover, the presence of antibiotics in the waste contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

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Swine waste lagoon located near CAFO barns.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates CAFOs under the Clean Water Act. However, despite these regulations, water pollution from CAFOs remains a significant environmental and human health problem.

 

 

Feed Crops: Fertilizer, Pesticides, and Excess Irrigation

 

Fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation practices used to grow crops for livestock significantly contribute to water pollution, leading to a range of environmental and health issues.

Fertilizer:

  • Agricultural fertilizers contain high levels of nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus. When plants do not fully utilize these nutrients, rain or irrigation water can wash them off fields, leading to eutrophication in downstream water bodies. Eutrophication is the process in which a water body is overly enriched with nutrients, resulting in excessive growth of algae or algal blooms. These algal blooms block sunlight and deplete oxygen levels in the water, creating "dead" zones where aquatic life cannot survive. Some algal blooms produce toxins harmful to humans and wildlife.

 

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Algal bloom in a waterbody near farms.

  • Nitrate and other chemicals in fertilizer can also leach below the root zone of plants and migrate to groundwater, contaminating the groundwater. This is a significant concern as groundwater is an important source of drinking water.

  • Fertilizers can also contribute to water pollution through atmospheric deposition. This occurs when fertilizers are volatile or become airborne and deposit into water bodies.

 

Pesticides:

  • Pesticides are another source of water pollution related to growing crops for livestock. These include insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides, which are used to control pests in agricultural fields. These chemicals can contaminate water through direct application, runoff, and atmospheric deposition. Pesticides can poison fish and wildlife, contaminate food sources, and destroy habitats. The risk of pesticide pollution is exacerbated by excessive rainfall and irrigation, which wash pesticides into water bodies.

 

Excess Irrigation:

  • Excessive irrigation can lead to water pollution by causing soil erosion; transporting nutrients, pesticides, and heavy metals; or decreasing the amount of water that flows naturally in streams and rivers. It can also cause a buildup of selenium, a toxic metal that can harm waterfowl reproduction. 

The sources for the information on this page can be found here.

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