By Donald “Doc” Sanders
Naturally, this year’s drought conditions have brought concerns of water shortages to the surface. Some are predicting that a shortage of water, coupled with continuing increases in the world population, will cause large food deficits and increased hunger. The experts from the Stockholm International Water Institute in Sweden go so far as to say water shortages will force everyone to become a vegetarian by 2050.
It’s been widely reported that the world population will increase by two billion people to total nine billion by 2050. This prospect and the concern that we might run out of water has made water conservation the new buzz.
The Stockholm International Water Institute is concerned that livestock require too much water. And Newsweek magazine once reported it takes as much water to raise a steer to 1,000 pounds as it does to float a destroyer. Leave it to the media. Unless they are referring to a child’s bathtub toy, they are full of hyperbole. The Navy — which should have a pretty good handle on the subject — reports it takes 2.11 million gallons of water to keep a destroyer afloat.
Of course, environmentalists typically predict we are teetering on the edge of the next great disaster. I want to know how they can predict how much rain we’ll be getting 40 years from now — and do it with a straight face.
As Paul Harvey used to say, here’s the rest of the story. Scientific findings from UC-Davis estimate that a 1,000-pound steer will consume 441 gallons of water in its lifetime (www.beeffrompasturetoplate.org). Some environmentalists dispute that figure arguing that other data suggests five times that much is needed.
By comparison, it takes 401 gallons of water to produce a pound of rice. A pound of chocolate racks up a “water footprint” of 2,847 gallons (www.waterfootprint.org).
I used WaterFootprint.org’s water usage calculator (http://www.waterfootprint.org/?page=cal/WaterFootprintCalculator) to determine that I use 640,000 gallons per year for meals, laundry and by taking a shower — but not a long one — every day. I guess I need to cut back on the chocolate, because I don’t think my Ohio State veterinary students, who ride around in the truck with me to treat cows, would allow me to cut back on the showers.
China already has a serious water shortage to the point that dairies are not allowed to use water to flush manure into a lagoon (even if the water is recycled for a net-zero loss). Operating under the dictates of Communist government managers, Chinese farmers often have to ignore science and commonsense in their management practices.
Regardless of what the Chinese choose to do to conserve water, I can tell you with confidence that giving up meat is not the way to go. Here’s why:
a. The actual water usage of beef cattle has been studied, hypothesized and calculated – with a wide disparity in conclusions, ranging from 400 gallons to slightly over 2,000 gallons. Here is the real message: Meat is an essential source of protein, zinc, vitamin B12 and iron, which promote child development, strong immune systems and body strength. You may have read my previous commentaries on the greatly improved IQ scores and muscular development of schoolchildren in Kenya who were served four ounces of meat daily versus their classmates who were on vegetarian diets.
b. New advances in agricultural biotechnology that, I am confident, will ultimately save us all from a water crisis. A case in point: In sub-Saharan Africa, a barley crop in years past required six irrigation cycles. Now, through improvements in barley genetics, a bountiful crop can be grown with only one watering.
c. From 1840 to 1946, the average corn yield in the U.S. was 26 bushels to the acre. Yields have since risen to nearly 150 bushels an acre — with peak performances in excess of 300 bushels an acre — thanks to modern genetically-modified corn hybrid breeding.
Those folks up there in Stockholm also failed to consider one other issue: 45% of the land in the U.S. is arable, non-tillable land that can grow only grass. Cows and other ruminants can convert grass into protein to nourish people. But take away the cows and similarly gifted livestock and this land would become useless for meeting the nutritional needs of an ever-growing world population.
So what’s the beef? We use renewable resources to grow calves before finishing them up in the feedlot. Plus, their water requirements are a moot point when calves are raised on arable, non-tillable land.
I say, certainly eat your fruits and vegetables. But please, pass the meat!