A Drought Of Common Sense

» February 27th, 2014

I’ve been stewing about this article for days. Courtesy of Mother Jones (an increasingly reliable source of gratuitous fear-mongering) the piece prods readers to go into high-anxiety mode over the ecological impact of almonds. Yep. Almonds. Turns out these crunchy little nuts are hogging California’s water, which is dangerously scarce. “It takes how much water to grow an almond?,” screams the headline.

When it comes to water almonds don’t matter. What matters is livestock. Here are some facts: growing alfalfa to feed cattle consumes more water than any other crop in California; most of the federal support that goes to struggling California farmers goes to ranchers; it takes 2000-2500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. It takes about 11o gallons to produce a pound of almonds. One clogs your arteries and demands the intentional slaughter of a sentient animal. The other packs of wallop of nutrients and requires no visit to the slaughterhouse.

What Marc Reisner wrote in Cadillac Desert still holds true today: “The West’s water crisis — and many of its environmental problems as well — can be summed up, implausible as this may seem, in a single word: livestock.” But, not to worry: the National Cattleman’s Association has asked its members to pray for rain. Meanwhile, I’ll be praying that somebody in the crazy world of food writing comes to his senses

54 Responses to A Drought Of Common Sense

  1. Anna Fiona says:

    BLESS YOU!!! I read the Mother Jones article, and was sputtering under my breath for the rest of the day. The cognitive disconnect, that big pink elephant in the room=animal ag, does not come up in any of these enviro, sustainable, clean living whatever you want to call it, articles or sites. I believe that animal advocates need to send petitions, written by specialists in the environmental field, in an attempt to appeal to them, suggesting that they stop obfuscating and obstructing advancement, and bring animal agriculture into the equation. Walk the walk. Anyone know Gidon Eshel, perhaps he would write it ;) ?

  2. This is an issue that needs MUCH MORE public exposure! Cheap, subsidized water and cheap, subsidized livestock feed has killed many small western rivers and obliterated fisheries, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities. Thank you for addressing it!

  3. Ellen K says:

    Just back from a week in brown and brittle northern CA, and heard a lot about reducing private water usage but — surprise! — not a peep about beef or dairy cows.
    Anyway, is that number (2,000 – 2,500gal / lb beef) the current best stat? And source for that? I need the most accurate data before working with 2 environmental events for events this spring/summer (who didn’t have food on the agenda, but will now)

  4. Even the UN agrees. They produced a report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, published in November 2006: http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM. It tells us what we already knew: that livestock contributes more to climate change than all the planes, trains and automobiles on the planet.

    • RedwingBlackbird says:

      You are repeating an error that was acknowledged years ago even by one of the author’s of Livestock’s Long Shadow.

      The statement that livestock production contributes more green house gases than the transportation sector, found in one sentence in the report’s executive summary, was based on a fundamental methodological error: the total life-cycle contribution of livestock production was counted (including land clearing, which was controversial because all land clearing is NOT done for livestock production) whereas only tailpipe emissions were counted for the transportation sector.

      In the US, the ENTIRE agricultural sector, of which livestock production is only a fraction, contributes only 8% of the total GHGs produced by US sources, whereas the transportation sector contributes 28% of the total, electricity production contributes 33% of the total, industry contributes 20%, and residential and commercial uses contribute 11%. This is EPA data, not just something I pulled out of my ***. Globally the percentages are somewhat different because in many parts of the world the transportation sector is not as developed as in the US, but even so, globally the contributions of transportation and agriculture are just about equal, and both are exceeded by electricity production as well as by the emission attributable to industry and to forestry.

      You really should stop repeating incorrect “information” in support of the “meat is bad” meme.

      • RedwingBlackbird says:

        By the way, I’m not trying to convince you to eat or not eat meat. Eat or don’t eat what you want, but don’t to to justify your choice or promote it to others on the basis of “environmental” arguments that are bogus.

  5. Bravo!! How blind of this writer to ignore the water needed to grow animals for slaughter! Close the factory farms, close the golf courses, ban grass lawns. . . grow almonds and then let’s see how much water we have here in northern ca.

  6. Laura says:

    Okay now I’m furious. I’ve been wondering when the media geeks would say SOMETHING about all the water hogged and wasted by animal “farms,” and not ONE word have I heard. So they’re picking on ALMONDS??!! Damn them. No one with a brain should wonder why people become misanthropic.

  7. Ellen K says:


    • Laura says:

      Haha, just a figure of speech, no offense to awesome pigs, who do, however, enjoy indulging, and they’ve a right to! :)

      • Ellen K says:

        Not to worry, as I totally understood that at first — just a little friendly ribbing as there’s so much language consciousness on this blog and comments. And I’m always looking for animal-friendly substitutes for common phrases in my own messaging.

  8. John T. Maher says:

    Meanwhile Rancho Feeding Corp, in Petaluma has recalled 8.7 million pounds of ‘beef’, much of it raised in CA, including Niman Ranch ‘one bad day’ happy meat. Putting aside the suffering inherent in 8.7 million pounds an lives it represents, why must taxpayers subsidize such inefficiency through discount water and grazing ‘rights’. Clearly democracy as configured in the US to not mean anti-democracy is incapable of addressing issues which question property rights and public subsidies. How much water does anyone guess went into 8.7 million pounds of landfill burger?

    Excellent ref to Marc Reisner and Cadillac Desert. True. Derives from an American separation of real property and riparian rights as a deracinated version of English laws which forbade commoners from owning real property. Americans can ‘own’ real property, just not the water or oil or NG beneath it.

  9. John T. Maher says:

    By the way, I can’t decide between Silk Almond milk and Blue Diamond Almond milk for the cereal bowl and pancake mix. Trending toward Silk, does anyone have an opinion or a better brand?

    • Laura says:

      I prefer any brand of organic non-gmo soymilk, but people have been so well brainwashed by WAPF spokes-holes that many won’t go anywhere near soy. Some won’t touch grains (devastating!!) or fruits (evil sugar!!) even, leaving… VERY little else to eat. The goal, I believe: back to bacon, burgers, eggs, and cow nursing. So they hope.
      I’ve found that almond milk makes cereal too soggy and taste less good. In pancakes & smoothies it’s okay though. But soymilk in cereal… yum :) …Just my opinion.

    • Ellen K says:

      Hi John,
      to your point, and Mountain’s below, about status quo being incapable of addressing/ending/closing subsidies and loopholes and forcing industry to pay all its own costs rather than externalizing them (as usual, private profit and socialized risk), and to have consumers also pay real cost (yes, let ground up cows be $35/lb or whatever estimate is), yet the need to do just that: I asked David Simon about this after a talk last week and he feels industry has such a stranglehold on regulatory agencies that it’s not realistic to work for this. So frustrating. There’s got to be a way…

      re almond milks:
      for pancakes and all baking purposes, I’m with Linda and use Edensoy’s plain unsweetened organic soymilk as it reacts beautifully with a little acid (vinegar, lemon) to culture into a perfect buttermilk.

      for cereal, the Pure Almond brand has the fewest additives, but it comes in plastic and is pricey.
      I make a homemade version as follows: 1 cup whole raw almonds plus 2-3 dates, soaked overnight or all day. In Vitamix or equivalent, blend until absolutely smooth with 2 cups water, pinch sea salt, vanilla or almond extracts if you like. When smooth, add another 4 cups of water. We DON’T strain the result, for max nutrients and calories and to save straining hassle plus all that almond pulp to find uses for. Ideal for cereal, oatmeal, all that. Freezes without texture problems. So ~7 c milk for about ~$2

      • Mountain says:

        My wife and I make our own almond milk, and think it’s better than any of the brands we’ve tried. Our recipe is virtually the same as Ellen K’s– soak raw almonds a few days, a couple of dates, and blend until smooth. We strain out the almond meal, either baking with it or bringing it out to the birds.

      • John T. Maher says:

        Appreciate that. Planning to do more crunchy things and will try. Maybe will add vodka and do a sproutsy version of the Korova Milkbar in Clockwork Orange. Dave Simon is great and has an important message. Buy his book!

  10. Mountain says:

    “it takes 2000-2500 gallons of water to produce one pound a beef.”

    Actually, it takes zero gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. So much water is wasted because feed crops like alfalfa are subsidized, even the water itself is subsidized.

    Get the nanny state out of agriculture, and let the dreaded market price water, so farmers pay the same price as everyone else. Do that and water will be used much more efficiently by both plant and animal agriculture. Do that, and farmers will stop raising animals in environments that can’t support them.

    • Laura says:

      I don’t know how many gallons of water it takes to produce a pound of “beef,” however I do know that enormous amounts of water are used in dairy farms and other animal confinement farms, and slaughterhouses, just in a cretinous effort to keep the places in some semblance of minimal cleanliness, which they fail at anyways… cleanliness isn’t possible with thousands of confined animals and their waste. That’s one of the reasons the animals are full of antibiotics… a breeding place for super bugs and rendering those antibiotics useless in combatting them… another dismal failure.
      And then the animals drink a lot of water, and water is used to grow crops to feed them, etc. This is a HUGE and idiotic waste of precious water. Those poor animals shouldn’t be there at all.
      But yes, if farmers had to pay the regular price for water they certainly wouldn’t be confining, abusing, and slaughtering animals.
      I’m vegan and eat plenty of awesome foods, really… very healthy too. So I don’t understand this obsession with people eating animal flesh, secretions, and eggs. We’re above eating dead bodies and keeping milk/egg slaves and cruelly discarding their babies.
      If those already (naturally) dead are to be used like I’ve seen you promote, they should only be fed to carnivorous animals kept by people. Then that brings up the “pet” industry… which should be ENDED, for the cruel, tragic failure people have allowed it to become, with healthy animals by the droves killed daily for being “surplus.”
      Not a fan of people, no I’m not.

      • Mountain says:

        Speaking of animal shelters, we have 2 rescue dogs on our 4 acres. As we’re able to acquire more land, we’ll be able to take on more rescue dogs.

        It’s estimated that 2 million dogs are needlessly killed every year in the U.S. If just 1% of all U.S. farmland were farmed the way we farmed, it would create more than enough jobs to save all of those dogs. Of course, it would also save the lives of 20-40 million chickens, and untold millions of field animals.

      • Rebecca Allen says:

        Hi Laura and all,
        According to the paper Assessment the Water Footprint of Farm Animals published in Ecosystems, 2012, beef uses a lot more. Check out their tables per country.


        The global averages for chicken meat (4,300 m
        3/ton), goat meat
        (5,500 m3/ton), pig meat (6,000 m
        3/ton) and sheep meat (10,400 m
        3/ton) to beef (15,400 m3/ton).

        Rebecca aka Becky

        • James says:

          From the same study:
          “As a general picture we find that animal products
          have a larger water footprint per ton of product
          than crop products. As we see from Table 3, the
          global average water footprint per ton of crop in-
          creases from sugar crops (roughly 200 m3/ton) and
          vegetables (????300 m3/ton) to pulses (????4,000 m3/
          ton) and nuts (????9,000 m3/ton).
          Also when viewed from a caloric standpoint, the water footprint of animal products is larger than for crop products. The average water footprint per calorie for beef is 20 times larger than for cereals and starchy roots. When we look at the water requirements for pro- tein, we find that the water footprint per gram of protein for milk, eggs and chicken meat is about 1.5 times larger than for pulses. For beef, the water footprint per gram of protein is 6 times larger than for pulses. In the case of fat, we find that butter has a relatively small water footprint per gram of fat, even lower than for oil crops. All other animal products, however, have larger water footprints per gram of fat when compared to oil crops. The gen- eral conclusion is that from a freshwater resource perspective, it is more efficient to obtain calories, protein and fat through crop products than animal products. A note should be made here, however, that types of proteins and fats differ across the dif- ferent products.”

          • TheMicrofilmPrinciple says:

            The linked study you are referring to is one of the two (it is paired with a similar study for crops) I was using for my comment below. Do look at the water numbers for nuts. As I mentioned in my comment below, the total number used includes “green” water, which is rainfall. It’s important to note the amounts of “green” (rainwater) versus “blue” (ground, lake, and river water) when talking about water management. For example, kola nuts use more than 23000 L/kg of water to produce (much higher than beef or other nuts), but on average only 26 L/kg are drawn from the ground or lake/river water (much lower than beef or other nuts). This implies they are primarily grown in an appropriate water-rich environment (tropics in Africa). There is an opportunity cost when comparing to other rainfed crops, but when considering California’s problem, the irrigated water is really the much more important number (not for kola nuts, which are not produced there and aren’t really a widespread food source, but for beef vs almonds).

            For beef and the three nuts in the MotherJones articles, you have the following blue water numbers (total water in parentheses), in L/kg or m^3/metric ton, which are the same:

            Beef: 550 (15415) [or 525 (14191) if using their USA-based numbers]
            Shelled Almonds: 3816 (16095)
            Shelled Walnuts: 2451 (9280)
            Pistachios: 7602 (11363)

            So, one can see that beef draws far less water from the ground, lakes, and rivers than the nuts: more than four times less than walnuts, more than six times for almonds, and more than thirteen times for pistachios.

            Note that fruits and vegetables are much lower than beef or nuts, but are much lower in calories per kg as well. If adjusting for calories, eyeballing the numbers, it looks like only broccoli and grapes use less surface water than beef of all the Californian products in the MotherJones article. If one wants good return for calories for water, one typically finds it in grains and pulses, but of course for most of us, our grains and pules don’t come from California, unlike our nuts or the other products MotherJones listed.

          • James says:

            Thanks. I guess I’m not fully clear on why the green/blue/grey water distinction matters. Do you mind giving a brief explanation?

          • TheMicrofilmPrinciple says:

            “Blue” water is consuming fresh surface or ground water–so, wells, lakes, rivers, streams, etc. It counts as “consumption” of this water if the water evaporates, is incorporated into a product, does not return to the original catchment area, or has a different return period to the catchment area (e.g. drawing out during dry season and returning during wet). So, for food production, this is all irrigation, all drinking water, and all processing/servicing water.

            “Green” water refers to the precipitation on land that does not run off or recharge the groundwater. In other words, all the rain falling that doesn’t change blue water availability amounts. The reason to worry about green water is as opportunity cost (if it exists). This quantity is important when discussing cattle and their water impact, particularly in an arid or semi-arid area, because the green component is what will fall on the land anyway and the land often is unsuitable for unirrigated crops, and the water will not recharge blue water, so cattle grazing there (or not) doesn’t change anything about California’s water issues. California’s water crisis is a blue water one, and the cattle’s contribution to that is their blue water use (irrigation, drinking, servicing).

            “Grey” water is not actually water consumption, but water pollution. It represents the amount of freshwater required to assimilate pollutants based on the ambient water quality. I’m not a fan of it being included with the other two, because it’s more of a pollution indicator and not a water use. I think calling it part of the “water footprint” is somewhat misleading, but I include it in the numbers I quote to prevent confusion for anyone looking up from the source and wondering why I left the number off.

          • James says:

            Okay. But–and I’m not being purposefully difficult here–I still don’t see why the distinction ultimately matters. Water is water, right? It’s scarce and we ned to conserve it wherever we can. Green water is Green until it becomes surface water and we call it Blue water. Fine. But to base “water footprint” on one and not both seems like your splitting hairs to skew the numbers in certain direction. Don’t Green and Blue fit into the water cycle as a whole? Forgive me if I’m being dense.

          • TheMicrofilmPrinciple says:

            To correct my previous comment, I shouldn’t have said “all irrigation” is blue, because that is imprecise. The consumed water from irrigation counts as blue, not all the water drawn. Specifically, it’s the water that evaporates, is incorporated into the product, and not part of the return flow. However, if there is a return flow (such as if you flood a field and part runs off back into your water source), this number is not part of the total.

          • TheMicrofilmPrinciple says:

            No, “Water is water” is decidedly not true. For instance, the green water I mentioned–cattle grazing–does not ever turn into blue water, if it’s grazed or not. It has been absorbed into the grass, and that will evaporate either by the cattle through respiration or the grass directly. Having them not graze that land does not affect blue water in any way whatsoever. In an arid or semi-arid place, blue water consumption is much more important than green water.

            It is extremely important to understand that water is not water, and the distinctions are made, because it makes a huge difference in how one calculates the environmental and economic effects of water-use. For example, if you do not understand that not all water is the same, then you would not understand that grazing animals are the most practical means of food production in arid areas–animals can graze on natural and/or well-adapted vegetation over large areas, while any human-consumable crops would require irrigating from incredibly scarce groundwater and surface water sources. The animals will use far more “green” water, but will help to preserve the extremely limited “blue” water sources. There is a reason pastoralism is the traditional way of life in such areas.

          • James says:

            Is it possible for us to talk? I have questions that I genuinely do not fully understand, and would certainly like to. Email me privately (jm71@txstate.edu) and maybe we could discuss. I’m still hung up on blue/green relationship in context of the water cycle. That is, one seems to be relevant to the other in a significant way. Also, how would this green/blue distinction play out in, say, the midwest? Is the issue California rather than almonds vs. beef?

          • TheMicrofilmPrinciple says:

            I don’t think I want to take the time to delve into it much more than I’m about to here, so I’d rather not move over to email communication. However, I’ll write one last time here, trying to be complete, to perhaps clear up what I am saying about the water use.

            First, I was not suggesting that one look at only blue water consumption and ignore green water consumption, because they are both important. I am saying, however, that ignoring the blue vs green distinction will lead to truly misleading and simplistic conclusions. If anything, we need greater partitioning of water, beyond the blue and green division, not tossing up our hands and saying “water is water.” In California, blue use is particularly of concern as a problem–much of the agriculture there is taking advantage of the temperature and sunlight, while water is a major constraint to production and many of the crops are not well-suited to dry environments, so they are tapping the blue flow an excessive amount, flow provided by snowmelt, reservoirs, and natural land release that are all sourced from the wetter winters. That excess use of blue water means California is more vulnerable to droughts like this one and is devastating to ecosystems dependent on blue water systems. A more green water balance there would indicate cropping better matching the rainfall, rather than depending on depleting river systems, and could even lead to a better balance of blue water (see below).

            You can tell the importance of blue water generally by your own quoted numbers–I’m not sure how you reached 110 gal/lb for almonds, but the only way that is even close to correct is if one is considering only irrigated water. The Mekonnen and Hoekstra number for shelled almonds would be around 460 gal/lb for the blue use. You were off by a factor of more than 17, not just three, if you meant their total water use (because, as I noted elsewhere, their total use per pound actually exceeds beef’s total use, the former being over 1900 gal/lb to the latter’s 1850). Missing that concept is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, because very frequently in popular press the number quoted for crop products is only the irrigated water use, which means it’s totally inappropriate to compare them to another product’s total water use and not its irrigated water use. Unfortunately, many orgs make this exact error like you just did. For instance, I’ve seen this PeTA quote, from their website, repeated endlessly by advocates and even popular press, “It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat, while growing 1 pound of wheat only requires 25 gallons.” The first number is clearly a total water-use one, and obviously they should also say “beef” and not “meat” because chicken and pork have far lower total use numbers (M&H estimate about 1850 gal/lb total use for beef, pork at 720 gal/lb, and chicken at around 510 gal/lb), and the second number is clearly an irrigation one (M&H estimate about 41 irrigated gal/lb for wheat, and it would be about 220 gal/lb if they were using total water-use). The current best choice in terms of informing people is to do what I did in my earlier comments–give the irrigated number and the total use at the same time, although even this is admittedly too general.

            Second, the idea of reducing green consumption to turn it into blue is way too simplistic. Becoming blue instead of green isn’t a straightforward concept–it’s not just renaming it, but recasting the entire cycle dynamic with a whole cascade of consequences for water and other things, and it wouldn’t really be a one-to-one conversion (as RedwingBlackbird said, you can’t treat all water as fungible). Furthermore, greater green water consumption on a given piece of land can be advantageous with respect to water, and, in fact, in most situations is thought to be advantageous in terms of keeping the ecological balance and maintaining water cycles. Cropland pretty much always evaporates less than natural vegetation for a given area, thus consumes less green water, but is generally not considered to be improving water management–quite the opposite, really, where being closer to the natural environment is considered preferable. Two reasons beyond the intrinsic value of a natural forest or grassland are timing and type of the water that ends up blue, and that the evaporation isn’t lost but is part of the water cycle.

            On timing, water availability is about flow, and the flow isn’t usually the same at all times. If you have land that adds to blue water in large quantities from a given amount of rain, rather than evaporating it through topsoil and plants (the lower green consumption), it generally will be causing high rivers or even flooding during the times that water is available, such as a wet spring, but doesn’t help much during the later dry time, such as a dry summer, other than perhaps the springtime recharge of reservoirs downstream and some groundwater recharge (and groundwater recharge might be lower than under greater green water consumption areas, if use causes more runoff and less seepage). Areas with a lot of biomass growth compared to cropland, such as a forest or a grassland, will release less total water into blue sources because they are evaporating more via transpiration, but what they release is done at a slower rate, such as via deeper, richer soils, roots and paths to create channels for water to soak in, etc. It keeps things like rivers replenished on a steadier, more continuous rate, and functioning like sponges during wet times to slowly release during dry, flattening the peaks and filling in the valleys of flow. Even comparing one type of crop to another, one that creates deeper roots and soils (such as perennials over annuals) will have this same effect, causing them to release blue water at a steadier rate (even if it’s less released in total), possibly release more into groundwater (rather than runoff), and needing less irrigation during the drier periods by retaining moisture in the soil. The buffer effect is particularly pronounced and useful in areas with high seasonal variation (like California).

            On the evaporation, something like 60% of rainfall is from water vapor from the land surface, and the recycling of moisture from the land to sustain and spread rainfall is a huge part of the water cycle. The farther inland the area is, the more important the land’s evaporation becomes to the cycling (so this one is somewhat less important to California). Reducing this evaporation and thus reducing atmospheric moisture causes rainfall to decline, and if it falls low enough it ceases to rain at all. One can also have a buffering effect similar to what I described above, where the delayed release of moisture into the air keeps conditions favorable for rain at later dates rather than all at once. Conversion of forests or grasslands to croplands leads to reduced green water consumption (and thus greater conversion to blue water from a given amount of rain), but is a major factor in desertification. After a rain, the blue water flows away, the direction of the ocean or underground, and the cycling is broken. Taken to a hypothetical extreme, one would get rain only a certain distance inland from the ocean, and everything else would be desert. This effect has been much discussed regarding the Sahel, for instance, where 90% of rain is from land evaporation.

            So, if you are looking at a forest, a hayfield, and a cornfield (let’s say all unirrigated so we can discount blue use), the forest will use the most green water, then the hayfield, then the cornfield, and the food return will be the inverse, so the cornfield seems to be the clear winner, leaving much more blue water for other uses. But, the cornfield will have far more runoff blue water, which is not generally desirable (even assuming topsoil loss isn’t also involved). It is quite likely that the hayfield will replenish the groundwater better, or the forest, depending on under which one the rain is penetrating soil more and how much evaporation they have, and one of them will be closer to the original natural cycle there (which is better depends on what the natural environment was). All sorts of things that hold water back—terracing, tree stands or barriers, unplowed grass barriers, etc.—will increase green water consumption, but are put there for water management, trying to make the water soak into the topsoil rather than just be runoff, which is what turning it blue by lowering green consumption usually does. There are cases where reducing green consumption might be desirable—deforestation can raise groundwater levels and river flow, for instance, and in a place like a natural prairie area, removing trees or making them sparser (like in a savannah) very well can help water management—but typically it’s not.

            I picked my example in the previous comment—cattle grazing grass or not—to keep things relatively simple. Grasslands are the largest biome in the world. If the grass remains there in both scenarios, grazing and not, then the effect of the livestock’s green water consumption on any potential blue water would be minimal, because the green water consumption is dependent on the grass. Thus, that particular green water consumption for food would be as close to “free” with respect to water as you are going to get, and clearly the best choice on water management. This would apply to rangelands or most places with pastoral cultures, for instance, barring complicating factors of the grazing significantly increasing or decreasing vegetation quantities or changing soil conditions. It can do both of those under various scenarios, of course, but generally the more desirable one would usually be to increase the green water consumption via building biomass and soil, creating a lusher area that yields the benefits I listed above, but one has to balance that with productivity in return of food. Perhaps ironically, it is the grazers that are most helping water management that will be marked as having the largest total water footprint (an arid grazer in a place like East Africa will go over huge amounts of land that simply cannot be cropped, and the footprint counts every drop of rain on any of it), so nuance in analysis is required.

            As I said before, green water consumption is still to be considered—there are opportunity costs in particular that should be factored in (can a given area support a forest, a grassland, which varieties of crops, etc., and what do we get from those). However, treating it the same as blue water is not appropriate at all—they have a separate set of environmental and economic consequences and opportunity costs, and should be analyzed with more precision, not less—and I hope I’ve explained enough to hint at why trying to convert from green to blue is typically a bad idea.

          • James says:

            I really appreciate the time you put into the response. I’ve learned a lot from it. Maybe my questions now have more to do with the implications of understanding this issue on a deeper level. M&H are pretty clear about reducing meat consumption or even going veg. Presumably, they are making this recommendation on the basis of their own findings. My sense is that you would find such a suggestion too simplistic. Frankly, with any phenomenon this complex, I suspect it’s always possible to find cases where nature’s complexity makes sweeping assessments ill-advised, but don’t you think that the authors are right to suggest reducing meat consumption to save water? I mean, how often to grazers get it right in a way that we could realistically buy meat and help the water supply? Given the volumes of meat we eat, and the nature of owning animals for profit, I’m skeptical. Anyway, thanks again for your thoughtful response.

          • TheMicrofilmPrinciple says:

            Yes, I find that takeaway too simplistic. Mekonnen and Hoekstra are the best current window into global water consumption for various products, but it does not mean their methodologies are perfect, that it’s the whole picture, or that their conclusions are necessarily the right ones. If you look at where research was coming from to arrive at this point–early water-use numbers either looked at exclusively blue water (most government numbers) or at total water with no distinctions (such as David Pimentel’s earlier numbers)–looking at a water footprint divided into blue and green is a vast improvement on both, as well as their work getting more up-to-date numbers on consumption rates. They and similar researchers deserve a lot of credit for moving the research forward in this respect. However, that doesn’t mean the concept is perfect–there are other ways to partition water more precisely that might be considerably more informative (dividing green into types of evaporation and what it’s embedded in; dividing blue into surface water, renewable groundwater, and fossil groundwater; including something about available flows; etc.) and more useful from a decision making position (their numbers, both green and blue, imply absolutely nothing about total resources available in a production area, or what substitutions are possible, a massive drawback and reason enough for strong caution). Research often has such trade-offs of reduced information in order to make numbers tractable, which is fine, but one has to be wary of the effect when thinking of implications. The main criticisms of their research, as well as the water footprint and virtual water concepts generally, is on that grounds that it’s still oversimplified compared to the realities of production, leading to false conclusions.

            For example, roasted coffee uses 18925 L/kg (about 2275 gal/lb), but it’s mostly rainfed in wet places (Brazil, Vietnam), so Californian pistachios, although using less water at 11363 L/kg, are still the bigger water problem in its production area, due to it being much drier and the disproportionate blue use–7602 to coffee’s 139 (only about 1% of coffee is irrigated at all). The blue use you can at least get from the table, but there is nothing to infer the available water resources in production zones. In the paper, they treated coffee like it should be considered a water-use problem, comparing it unfavorably to tea by saying it has a “much larger” water footprint, and I don’t feel that’s as justified as they appear to think. Coffee is 130 L/cup of coffee, but only 0.95 L irrigated, while tea is 27 L/cup, but 2.7 L irrigated, and tea is grown in more areas with water problems, with much of the irrigated tea being from China and India, countries already facing water-stresses. If coffee really is a water problem, and more of one compared to tea, it’s underjustified in their research in spite of their comment about it.

            Similarly, on some of their other conclusions, I’m not very sold. I find it rather troubling that in most of their summaries they tend to look at total water-use numbers without the distinction of green and blue, which looks nice in a summary but undoes the good work of their tables in making the distinction. It wrongly implies a liter of irrigated water is the same as a liter of rainwater. Then they later contradict this limited total water footprint perspective (which I think is pretty clearly wrong) by stressing the distinctions when discussing the shift in global meat production: They note that industrial systems increase blue and grey water and thus increase water stress, even while they reduce total water-use, and say greater use of crop residues and roughages causes lower water-stress, even though these have the higher total, an explicit acknowledgement that the total is insufficient to decide what causes more water stress. Frankly, I find their contributions in improving measurement and modeling of water numbers to have been of far greater value than their end analysis, which is rather muddled by comparison. They globalize the concept too much (not uncommon among researchers and partially understandable, as the virtual water idea is supposed to be a way of measuring “water trade” on a globalized scale), losing a lot of the distinctions and nuances they contributed to along the way. It ends up treating all water equally, when a tomato in Spain and a tomato in the UK not only have different green/blue profiles, but different implications of environmental and economic consequences based on those profiles.

            So on the meat consumption and water savings, I wouldn’t necessarily agree with their assessment. It’s true as a general rule, but I think that’s rather misguided to go off of, because it’s the specifics that become important with water management. I would want to know what meat, how it was produced and where, and what one would be replacing it with, how that would be produced and where. If the substituting products are chosen carefully, then one could save water, but that could be said about adding in well-chosen meat to replace certain crops, too. I’ve found that realistic substitution scenarios, particularly among wealthy first-world consumers who tend to insist on diversity, aren’t very simple, something that very few researchers take into account.

  11. TheMicrofilmPrinciple says:

    Your water figures do not seem remotely accurate, at least not to compare to one another. It’s pretty clear your number for beef is an all-sources number, rainwater and surface water, and still appears to be too high, while your number for almonds is just surface water use, and still appears to be too low. More important than being slightly too high and too low, however, is that it’s not comparing like with like.

    I suggest you look at the studies by Mekonnen and Hoekstra, among the most recent and best agricultural product water-use studies, and the credited source of the MotherJones article numbers. From M&H, on average, to produce beef, it takes 15415 liters of water per kilogram of beef. Meanwhile, to produce almonds, it takes 16095 liters of water per kilogram of shelled almonds. So a pound of shelled almonds have a larger water footprint than a pound of beef. Those numbers are all water sources summed. Furthermore, the more relevant numbers to use in the context of the California drought (or any water-scarce scenario) is focusing on the groundwater (“blue” in the papers, meaning groundwater, lakes, and rivers), which is the irrigation for the almonds and the irrigated feed, drinking water, and slaughter processing water for the beef. When considering only “blue” sourced water, beef uses an average of 550 liters/kilogram, while shelled almonds use 3816 liters/kilogram.

    Thus, according to the same research that MotherJones cited, a pound of shelled almonds requires more than six times more water to be drawn from the already depleted groundwater or the drying lakes and rivers than a pound of beef requires. So, anyone worried about California’s water use, and wanting to make a purchasing decision based on it, should choose that pound of beef before the pound of almonds.

    • Laura says:

      Sorry, I don’t believe Mother Jones or Mekonnen & Hoekstra. I’ve found Mother Jones to be untrustworthy, steeped in vested interests despite their perceived image.

      I’ve recently read, and believe, that 2,500 gallons of water go into making a pound of beef. To grow that hamburger, it takes water to grow the vegetation the cow eats, water for the cow to drink, water for processing the meat, water to continually hose down the filth in the confinement farms and slaughterhouses. It all adds up, and is a cruel shameful waste…of resources and of our humanity.
      I’ve also read that it takes roughly 500 gallons of water to grow a pound of almonds, and I believe that.
      I suggest you take that “beef” promotion somewhere else… this is a site promoting veganism and our best humanity.

      • Laura says:

        PS: Almonds have the same amount of protein as beef, and MORE iron; 6% of the RDA for 1 ounce of almonds vs. 2% for same amount of beef.

      • TheMicrofilmPrinciple says:

        I’m not certain why you wouldn’t believe Mekonnen and Hoekstra. Their water-use numbers have been published in peer-reviewed journals and also in the UNESCO water footprint paper series. They are quoted above by Rebecca Allen (who provided a link to one of their papers) and James. Their research is recent, peer-reviewed, and widely accepted as the best numbers we have at present (there are of course still flaws in how these things are calculated). Not believing them seems rather unjustified, to be frank.

        As to MotherJones, your level of faith in them is quite irrelevant to my comment. I quoted no numbers from MotherJones, only making the observation that they are using the same source material, which is the very respected Mekonnen and Hoekstra research.

        On beef promotion, I will not try to convince you or anyone else to change your dietary habits on this website. I think it’s perfectly fine if you (and James and others) wish to promote veganism here. However, I suggest you use a topic other than water for the almonds vs beef argument, because beef clearly wins with respect to water use (aggregate and especially the more important “blue” water).

        • Laura says:

          Here’s Mekonnen & Hekstra’s Abstract from “A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products” 2012; maybe they’re okay after all:

          “The increase in the consumption of animal products is likely to put further pressure on the world’s freshwater resources. This paper provides a comprehensive account of the water footprint of animal products, considering different production systems and feed composition per animal type and country. Nearly one-third of the total water footprint of agriculture in the world is related to the production of animal products. The water footprint of any animal product is larger than the water footprint of crop products with equivalent nutritional value. The average water footprint per calorie for beef is 20 times larger than for cereals and starchy roots. The water footprint per gram of protein for milk, eggs and chicken meat is 1.5 times larger than for pulses. The unfavorable feed conversion efficiency for animal products is largely responsible for the relatively large water footprint of animal products compared to the crop products. Animal products from industrial systems generally consume and pollute more ground- and surface-water resources than animal products from grazing or mixed systems. The rising global meat consumption and the intensification of animal production systems will put further pressure on the global freshwater resources in the coming decades. The study shows that from a freshwater perspective, animal products from grazing systems have a smaller blue and grey water footprint than products from industrial systems, and that it is more water-efficient to obtain calories, protein and fat through crop products than animal products.”

          So, even if almonds are one plant crop that requires more water than most, they’re a vital food for human beings…with a lot of protein, iron, calcium, good fat, gluten-free, B vitamins…so they’re far preferable to growing and slaughtering cows.

          Animal ag has no place in our civilization, especially not with 7 billion people to feed. Eliminating animal ag would in fact vastly alleviate the world’s water problems, don’t you agree? After all, that’s what Mekonnen & Hoekstra said above.

          • TheMicrofilmPrinciple says:

            “So, even if almonds are one plant crop that requires more water than most, they’re a vital food for human beings”

            That one is so close to what most meat eaters say about meat that I laughed out loud. Almonds are no more vital than any other individual food. Even the most important foods have reasonable substitutes, like how wheat (probably the most important food from a worldwide perspective) could be replaced in production by other grains. If you want to help on your water footprint, eliminating almonds and almond derivatives for other substitutes would probably be a good idea–not that you have to.

            “Eliminating animal ag would in fact vastly alleviate the world’s water problems, don’t you agree?”

            No, I certainly don’t agree, and that’s not what Mekonnen and Hoekstra’s research suggests. Increasing meat consumption and increasing intensification of production will cause additional water-stress, a straightforward and accurate conclusion. A larger overall water footprint than crop products is also a straightforward and accurate conclusion, but that doesn’t mean crops are always better from a water perspective, because it depends on the crop and the water types and conditions–see my comments to James above. Water-use is much like land-use, in that the variety of conditions means looking at total use numbers is useful as a general rule but misleading to make any conclusions overly broad in application. All water is not fungible, just as all land is not fungible. Eliminating animal agriculture is neither desirable from a water perspective nor part of their conclusion, and there are many factors to consider besides water.

          • Laura says:

            @Microfilm: Almonds don’t require slaughterhouses, blood tanks (that develop leaks), antibiotic abuse, manure lagoons, groundwater pollution, significant increase in heart disease risk (have fun with your TMAO from carnitine which vegans are immune to), cancer, extremely cruel subhuman behavior, so on…all bad. While almonds are all good, full of great nutrients we need…simple as that. And again, they require far less water than meat production even if they’re among the highest in water use for plant crops.
            So what you’re saying is that M&H were wrong in their statement that “…it is more water-efficient to obtain calories, protein and fat through crop products than animal products.” I guess my understanding of the English language isn’t quite what I’d though it was. Your special interest interpretations are required for real understanding, right? Lol.

          • TheMicrofilmPrinciple says:

            “And again, they require far less water than meat production even if they’re among the highest in water use for plant crops.”

            No, that’s completely false. By Mekonnen and Hoekstra’s numbers, almonds in fact require more water, and often far more, both in total and from blue sources, than any meat studied by them, let alone the lower water-use meats. They may not be exactly right on the numbers, but they would have to be off by an order of magnitude for your statement to be true.

            As far as implying I’ll get heart disease, claiming I represent a special interest, and whatever the subhuman behavior thing is, well, you are illustrating the reason that researchers who Anna Fiona pines for don’t usually waste time on vegan forums. Honest assessment is often met with hostility.

          • James says:

            For what it’s worth, I’m really grateful for the time you have spent sharing what amounts to very important information that seems to be well within your wheelhouse of expertise (honestly, I’d love to know who you are). I’ve learned a lot. What seems certain is that masses of data that reveal the endless contingencies of water usage and land use make it very hard to draw black and white conclusions. At the same time, it does seem safe to suggest that, in general, consumers who switch from animal to plant based diets will lower their water footprint. Maybe not all the time, but most of it. Simplistic? Maybe. But, if we want to eat in way that’s consistent with our environmental ethics, we have to simplify to some extent. In any case, I hope that your perception of dogmatism on the part of vegan advocates is tempered enough to keep you following The Pitchfork. I can assure you that many readers actively seek complexity and are ready to take it on. So we need perspectives such as yours.

          • Mountain says:

            I just wanted to thank TheMicrofilmPrinciple for his comments. I was previously unfamiliar with the blue/green distinction, though it seems to make much intuitive sense. As a non-vegan farmer who shares many ethical goals with vegans, it’s good to see support for measures like terracing and leaving grass unplowed. If you have any resources to recommend, I’d be interested.

      • Laura says:

        Wrong. Lies are what the animal ag industry thrive on; it’s why they’d like to to make it a federal offense to even take pictures of their places from across the street. No prying eyes in there, no sir… you don’t need to know how your sausage is made. Vegans tell the truth, as much as you hate that, you’re preferring to live in a world of delusion and feigned humanity.

        • Laura says:

          Don’t worry, I wasn’t worried about your comment. It’s like certain people (hmm, I wonder what their livelihoods depend on) have nothing better to do online than seek out vegan and animal advocacy material, and attack, insult, bitterly fume. How noble an activity!
          There’s plenty of open dialog here, just nothing below a certain level of anti-vegan vitriol, from what I’ve seen. I believe the purpose is to keep this forum mature and civilized.

    • RedwingBlackbird says:

      Thanks for your extremely useful comments here, TheMicrofilmPrinciple. The distinctions between “blue,” “green,” and “grey” water made by people like Mekonnen and Hoekstra are extremely important. All water is not fungible, just as all land is not fungible. Too many people who try to talk about diet, food production, and the environment simply do not understand that – including the author of this blog and most of the commenters, it seems — which means there’s a huge amount of misinformation that gets circulated, particularly in the popular media, and which then get used as propaganda, without regard to its accuracy. Frankly I had to laugh when Mr. McWilliams said he didn’t think the distinctions were important after he confessed that he wasn’t even familiar with the concept of “blue,” “green,” and “grey” water. A person who isn’t even familiar with the distinctions between these categories is hardly in a position to assess their significance.

  12. Anna Fiona says:

    Excellent topic, thank you again James. Thank you everyone for your input and information on the subject, it has been very illuminating. The issue I have with the Mother Jones article, is not one of accuracy, but rather perspective. As is very common with media, it is myopic, rather than holistic. I believe our resources are scarce enough that we are well overdue for the discussion to address our over consumption-across the board. The following reports are dense in material, content and complexity. However, there are also clear synopsis’ as well as conclusions, that help solidify comprehension. I will leave the debate to the geophysicists, statisticians, oceanographers, and other experts in the field with the PhD’s and beyond. I just wish the experts received more “air” time, given the critical state of affairs.

    The relation between consumption and water use
    “The interest in the water footprint is rooted in the recognition that human impacts on freshwater systems can ultimately be linked to human consumption, and that issues like water shortages and pollution can be better understood and addressed by considering production and supply chains as a whole,” says Professor Arjen Y. Hoekstra, creator of the water footprint concept. “Water problems are often closely tied to the structure of the global economy. Many countries have significantly externalized their water footprint, importing water-intensive goods from elsewhere. This puts pressure on the water resources in the exporting regions, where too often mechanisms for wise water governance and conservation are lacking. Not only governments, but also consumers, businesses and civil society communities can play a role in achieving a better management of water resources.”


    In conclusion, we provide a detailed estimate of the water footprint of farm animals and animal products per production system and per country. The results show that the blue and grey water footprintsof animal products are the largest for industrialsystems (with an exception for chicken products). The water footprint of any animal product is larger than the water footprint of crop products with equivalent nutritional value.

    Managing the demand for animal products by promoting a dietary shift away from a meat-rich diet will be an inevitable component

    This study provides a rich data source for further studies on the factors that determine how animal products put pressure on the global water resources. The reported incidents of groundwater
    depletion, rivers running dry and increasing levels of pollution form an indication of the growing water scarcity (Gleick1993; Postel 2000; UNESCO 2009). As animal production and consumption play an important role in depleting and polluting the world’s scarce freshwater resources, information on the water footprint of animal products will help us understand how we can sustainably use the scarce freshwater resource

    Arjen Y. Hoekstra is professor in water resources management at the University of Twente, Enschede, the Netherlands

    Watching our leaky taps is the least of our problems when it comes to water wastage – agricultural practices and animal products are by far the greater danger
    The desirability of reducing our carbon footprints is generally recognized – if not necessarily acted upon – by governments, corporations and individual consumers. Yet the related and equally urgent need to address our water footprint is often overlooked.
    Campaigns aimed at getting the public to save water are usually aimed at reducing domestic or industrial consumption of water. But only 10 per cent of our water consumption is related to industrial products, and only 5 per cent to domestic water consumption.

    About 85 per cent of humanity’s water footprint is in fact related to the consumption of agricultural products, particularly animal products, which generally use much more water per calorific value than crops. This means that if people are considering reducing their water footprint, they need to look at their diet rather than at their water use in the kitchen, bathroom or garden.

    web.a.ebscohost.com/abstract?direct=true&profile=ehost&scope=site&authtype= Grazing vs feedlots Eshel, Gidon; Martin, Pamela A.; Bowen, Esther E.

    Since grazing animals eat mostly cellulose-rich roughage while their feedlot counterparts eat mostly simple sugars whose digestion requires no rumination, the grazing animals emit two to four times as much methane, a greenhouse gas roughly 30 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. This, and the faster weight gain by feedlot animals, result in significantly higher greenhouse gas emissions per pound of meat by grass fed animals than by feedlot ones. This is true, to variable a degree, for organic and non-organic, large- and small-scale grazing operations in the U.S. and overseas. Then there is land. Upward of a quarter of the entire U.S. surface area is pasture or graze land. Grazing animals produce at most a quarter of the calories per acre typical plant based production systems do. While these facts are well established, they are often dismissed as irrelevant to the grass feeding question on the (partly correct) grounds that much grazing occurs on land that would otherwise produce no human destined calories. But do we need more calories? In recent decades, the U.S. has been consistently producing 3,800 kcal per person per year, almost twice the average person’s needs.
    Given biodiversity declines due to dwindling, fragmented, wilderness, allocating all this land to inefficiently producing needless calories is foolhardy. Even if you irrationally consider those extra calories indispensable, because of corn’s unrivaled caloric yield it makes more sense to produce them as a corn derivative on a fraction of the land, and still have some left for species protection.
    Grazing cattle also compromise river systems in the fragile arid and semi arid environments in which they are disproportionately ubiquitous, and accelerate soil erosion.
    Because they eat much more dry matter then feedlot animals, they also pressure dwindling local water supplies exactly where they are most vulnerable.
    While some of those adverse impacts can be minimized by adequate management, most rigidly reflect cattle biology and north American geography.
    Grass-feeding produces unnecessary low-quality calories at ostentatious environmental costs while displacing threatened wildlife.
    While some grass-feeding may be reasonable on marginal lands near population centers in the rainy eastern U.S., the logical number of grazing cattle in the western U.S. is zero.
    What we need is not grass fed cattle, but quantitative sophistication that readily distinguishes elixirs like grass feeding from actual environmental solutions.

    and so on… there is a wealth of peer reviewed research, so few are covered adequately in the media by the respective experts (rather than journalists). I look forward to a more comprehensive representation of the whole issue, so that we are fully informed. Thank you again for giving much needed attention and getting a dialogue going.

    • Mountain says:

      The answer to water allocation is pricing. That’s what environmentalists are trying to do with carbon through cap & trade– though even that faces significant opposition. Pricing water is much easier. Make the price of usable water reflect its scarcity, and water use will become much more rational. Agriculture will still use plenty of water, but in semi-arid climates it will move toward more water-efficient food. More water-intensive production will move toward areas with more abundant usable water.

  13. Anna Fiona says:

    Just opened my email this am to find this article from Mother Jones. Perhaps enough of us had made comments on their board regarding the full breadth of water use in ag, that it made them pause; or equally probable, it is just coincidence. Interesting non the less.

    It Takes HOW Much Water to Make Greek Yogurt?!


  14. SkyHunter says:

    The reason that the green/blue/grey distinction is not very important is because pastures are generally more compacted than arable land. A common practice when converting from pasture is to rip the earth with a 3 foot spike, creating an aerated reservoir to hold more green water.

    I agree with Professor McWilliams that emphasizing the difference is splitting hairs to skew the numbers in a certain direction.

    Water is water. While the distinctions are important, to the details and minutia, they are not significant in the overall water footprint analysis. More water is more water.

  15. Iumi Richard says:

    This is a great article and reflects my feelings exactly. Mother Jones has just put out yet another article attacking almonds.

    I think we need to CALL MOTHER JONES ON THEIR B.S….what’s up, are they secretly funded by the meat industry? or so conflicted by their own meat addiction that they are blowing smoke to cover up the real issue. This is not new news.
    anybody got an idea to call them on this? Letter to the editor probably won’t do it.

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