At 21, I was blindsided when I first learned about the water footprint of meat.
As I grew up, the speakers that Denver Water sent to my school encouraged my classmates and me to keep our showers short and turn off the faucet while we brushed our teeth to conserve water.
On the other hand, it takes 660 gallons of water to produce one hamburger. That’s the same amount of water that would take him four and a half hours to shower or leave the tap on while brushing his teeth for almost a year.
One hamburger. no one ever mentioned it.
It turns out that most of our water usage doesn’t actually occur at home. On average, about 70% of freshwater use in the United States is used for growing and producing food.
Simple dietary changes can therefore make a big difference in the amount of water we use, especially on a population scale. The amount of water used is greatly reduced.
Plant-based foods still require water to produce, but the inefficiency of animal foods is staggering: compared to the 660 gallons of water required for a burger, Impossible’s plant-based burger patties consume about 4 Using only gallons, the Beyond plant only uses about a gallon for the base burger patty.
These meatless alternatives offer nearly the same amount of protein per bite while also significantly reducing your carbon footprint and environmental impact.
But why do meat and dairy products require more water than plant-based foods? The water used to make burgers isn’t just the water cows need to drink. Most of the meat’s water footprint is actually due to the water needed to grow livestock feed.
This inevitably leads to inefficient use of water in the dishes.
Picture the water situation for beef: Over 80% of cows spend most of their lives in feedlots. There, they rely primarily on irrigated forage crops grown in the American Plains and West. These regions are facing increasingly severe drought and climatic water scarcity. Change. In the midst of exceptional drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin (clearly evidenced by the record low water levels of Lake Mead), we are seeing restrictions on residential water use. During that time, about 80% of the water in the Colorado River Basin is actually used for agriculture, and about half is used directly for cattle feed crops such as alfalfa and hay.
This water usage rate is becoming increasingly unsustainable. At current water consumption rates across the Colorado River Basin, Lake Mead could drop to “deadpool” levels within a few years. This is a level so low that the water does not flow to Arizona or California. Lake Powell, from Nevada to Colorado, is tens of feet away from water levels dropping to such an extent that the Glen Canyon Dam can no longer power his 300,000 homes. Between worsening drought and continued overuse of water resources for agriculture and meat production, now is the time for change.
I wish I had learned about it earlier in elementary school water classes.
The move towards more drought-tolerant diets is gaining momentum. The Denver Mayor’s Sustainability Advisory Board has taken his DefaultVeg to implement plant-based defaults, rather than water-intensive options like beef. Gov. Jared Polis declared March 20 as “Meat Out Day,” raising awareness of the environmental and health benefits of his diet for Plant Forward.
We can no longer overlook the impact of water on our food table. If we want to give young generations the tools they need to build more sustainable and climate-resilient societies, we need to start by teaching them about food’s water footprint in schools.
Ellie Fajer from Littleton is a senior at Stanford University.