Meat production is siphoning off California’s water supply

Food for thought in this guest editorial by Tracy Reiman for the Daily News. We just posted an infographic by Vickery Eckhoff concerning who’s grazing public lands.

Cow and calf on public lands. Image by Kimberlee Curyl.
Cow and calf on public lands set aside especially for wild horses. Image by Kimberlee Curyl.


As California enters its fourth consecutive year of drought — prompting Gov. Brown to order mandatory water restrictions — why is the Golden State sending water to China?

According to James McWilliams, a professor at Texas State University, California alfalfa growers are exporting 100 billion gallons of water a year — in the form of alfalfa hay — to China to feed factory-farmed cows.

Indulging in meat consumption, a bad habit that destroys people’s health, never makes sense. But exporting our bad habits to other nations — and wasting precious resources in the process — is scandalous.

Instead of feeding China’s demand for beef, we should be saving water, animals and human health by eating vegan and doing whatever it takes to encourage other nations to follow suit.

A Chinese man and a woman eat hamburger during a Burger King contest in XiAn. AP Image.
A Chinese man and a woman eat hamburger during a Burger King contest in XiAn. AP Image.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, farmed animals are fed more than half the crops currently grown in the world. Alfalfa hay isn’t grown for human consumption — instead, it’s funneled through animals who are raised for human consumption, which is a highly inefficient way of producing food.

McWilliams, author of the recent book “The Modern Savage,” estimates that alfalfa, which is grown on more than a million acres in California, sucks up more water than any other crop in the state, which grows nearly half the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts.

A report shows that the average meat-eater indirectly uses nearly 600 gallons of water a day more than the average vegan. That’s because it takes a substantial amount of water to cultivate crops that are grown to feed farmed animals, provide them with drinking water, and wash away the filth produced on factory farms, on transport trucks and in slaughterhouses.

The water footprint of plant-based foods—the amount of water it takes to produce them — is generally much smaller than that of animal-derived ones. For example, it takes about 85,000 gallons of water to produce a ton of vegetables, but roughly 4 million gallons of water are needed to produce a ton of beef.

Then there’s the animals’ drinking water. Animals raised for food consume the majority of the water in the United States. Just one pig consumes 21 gallons of drinking water per day, while each cow on a dairy farm drinks as much as 50 gallons a day.

Raising and killing chickens requires a lot of water, too. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that it takes 9 gallons of water to slaughter just one chicken. And raising each bird, including growing grain for feed, requires an additional 1,000 gallons. More than 7 billion chickens are raised and killed for food every year in the U.S. alone. You do the math.

More cows getting ready to be milked. All of the 2000 cows at this facility get three baths a day and are milked every five hour. Photo:
More cows getting ready to be milked. All of the 2000 cows at this facility get three baths a day and are milked every five hours. Photo:

It’s clear that meat production is severely draining our water resources — and studies show that meat consumption harms our health as well. Research has conclusively linked meat and other animal-based foods to heart disease, diabetes, strokes and cancer. So, if people keep chowing down on hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken sandwiches, they may have to deal with a lot of doctor’s visits in addition to water restrictions. And no one wants that.

While we can’t control Mother Nature, we can control our actions that affect the environment and our well-being. I’ve made the choice to help save California’s water as well as the health of my family, animals and the planet simply by choosing tasty vegan foods. I enthusiastically encourage other Californians — and indeed, people all over the world — to join me.

Tracy Reiman is the executive vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), based in Norfolk, Va.; She lives in Los Angeles.

Gives a new perspective doesn’t it on the BLM “water wars” between the cattle ranchers and wild horses?

I remember watching Soylent Green in my youth. It didn’t occur to me that it could happen in my lifetime then, but it is occurring to me now. If you haven’t seen it, you really should. (Get it at


• “The Water Footprint of Food“, By EcoCentric (a blog about food, water and energy), Grace Communications Foundation

• “Peak Meat Production Strains Land and Water Resources“, New Worldwatch analysis examines global trends in meat production, prices, and practices, WorldWatch Institute


We have added the images here; they are not from the original article.

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