Question: How does eating meat affect water usage, water pollution and the ocean? Is eating meat a waste of water?
Answer: The global effects of meat consumption don’t stop on land. Agriculture also requires water consumption, and animal agriculture is no exception. Animal production consumes an amount of water roughly equivalent to all other uses of water in the United States combined. Besides grains, animals need water to survive and grow until they are slaughtered. One pound of beef requires an input of approximately 2500 gallons of water, whereas a pound of soy requires 250 gallons of water and a pound of wheat only 25 gallons.
Meat production is inefficient as it requires the consumption of an extensive amount of resources over many months and years before becoming a usable food product. With the water used to produce a single hamburger, you could take a luxurious shower every day for two and a half weeks.
Even the EPA identifies agriculture as a major water pollutant (1). Why? Agricultural pesticides and nitrates used in fertilizers and manures seep into our groundwater, eventually spilling out into the oceans creating so-called “dead zones” (expansive areas so toxic that neither plant nor animal life can survive) viewable from space in places like the Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi spills out into the sea. Besides the chemicals used in cultivation, accidental pollution though chemical spills and manure dumps are an ongoing source of water pollution from feedlots. The manure created from the billions of animals killed for food has to go somewhere, and often, it ends up in rivers and streams, killing millions of fish in one fell swoop (2).
So, yes, eating meat is a waste of water and contributes heavily to water pollution. If you care about the environment, and want to conserve water, the best course of action is to reduce your personal meat intake by becoming vegetarian or, better yet, vegan, and encouraging others to do the same.
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(1) US Environmental Protection Agency. 1984. Report to Congress: Nonpoint Source Pollution in the US Office of Water Program Operations, Water Planning Division. Washington, D.C.
(2) Merritt Frey, et al., Spills and Kills: Manure Pollution and America's Livestock Feedlots, Clean Water Network, Izaak Walton League of America and Natural Resources Defense Council (August 2000)