Is a vegan diet best for the planet? England is projected to run short of water within 25 years, the chief executive of the Environment Agency has declared.
Sir James Bevan, also a British diplomat and public servant, said the country is facing the “jaws of death.” Climate change has caused water supply to fall lower than the demand of the country’s rising population, which is set to increase from 67 million to 75 million in 2050, according to The Guardian.
“Around 25 years from now, where those [demand and supply] lines cross is known by some as the ‘jaws of death’ – the point at which we will not have enough water to supply our needs, unless we take action to change things,” Bevan told The Guardian.
“We need water wastage to be as socially unacceptable as blowing smoke in the face of a baby or throwing your plastic bags into the sea,” he added.
Water and Climate Change
At a speech at the Waterwise conference in London, the diplomat said, “Water companies all identify the same thing as their biggest operating risk: climate change.”
Within 21 years, more than half of British summers will be hotter than the 2003 heatwave, whereby temperatures reached 38.5 °C in the UK, breaking the country’s record, and more than 20,000 people died in Europe. The upped heat will lead to more water shortages and potentially 50 to 80 percent less water in some rivers during the summer, Bevan said.
Water shortage concerns aren’t exclusive to Britain. A report by watchdog organization Food & Water Watch uncovered that the U.S. is experiencing a “secret water crisis.” The research found that water services had been cut off to an estimated 1.4 million people living in more than 500,000 households. Experts said that changes in the climate are threatening the levels of major bodies of water — including the Colorado River as well as Lake Mead, which currently supplies water to 22 million people — which then increases water bills.
United Nations Water points out that water scarcity is affecting every continent. “Water use has been growing globally at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century, and an increasing number of regions are reaching the limit at which water services can be sustainably delivered, especially in arid regions,” it said, naming climate change and bio-energy demands as leading drivers.
Solutions to Water Shortages
Water issues could be prevented or at least minimized by implementing certain measures, said Bevan, like cutting people’s water use by a third and reducing leakage from water company pipes by 50 percent.
Some strategies proposed focus on the building of large reservoirs, transferring water across the country, and building desalination plants, however, these options can be controversial. The latter, for example, is costly to build and operate and brings up other environmental concerns like waste disposal and the killing of marine life.
Other measures focus on individuals’ behavior. Reducing the average person’s daily water use from 140 litres to 100 litres by using water more efficiently in homes and gardens could help alleviate pressure, Bevan said. But looking toward our plates could prove even more beneficial.
Diet and Water Use
It might not seem like what’s on our dining tables could impact the planet’s water supply, but a growing amount of evidence suggests that the food we choose to eat can influence these levels. According to Water Calculator, the largest portion of an individual’s water footprint stems from their diet. “In order to lower water footprints, there’s no better place for a person to start than taking a closer look at their food choices,” the website explains.
It adds that water footprints of food items are made up of three sectors: the amount of rainwater used (green water footprint), the amount of water extracted from surface and groundwater for irrigation (blue water footprint), and the amount of water needed to dilute pollution generated by producing the food (gray water footprint).
To help reduce your water footprint, Water Calculator recommends diet-related changes including eating less processed foods, wasting less food, choosing organic, eating locally, and eating less meat. If you do eat meat, pasture-raised is considered the better option; while both conventional and pastured meat use the same amount of water, their impact on water resources are different. However, Water Calculator maintains that cutting out meat is “the best way to lower dietary water footprints.”
“Beef has a particularly high water footprint at about 1,800 gallons per pound, while pork follows at 578 gallons and chicken with 468 gallons,” it explains. “On average, the water footprint of a vegan or vegetarian is around half that of a meat eater.”
“By eating less meat and replacing it with less water-intensive plant-based alternatives, water footprints will shrink,” the website says.
A study by the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC), which was published in Nature in 2018, makes similar suggestions. The study compared the water footprint of various diets by analyzing socio-economic data, national food surveys, and international food consumption and water footprint databases. The research is the most detailed study on the impact of nationwide food consumption on water footprints to date.
Analyzing diets that contain meat, pescatarian diets, and vegetarian diets, the study found that plant-based food has the smallest water footprint; a vegan diet uses five times less water than a meat-based one, according to the researchers, who added that vegetable-rich diets are not only beneficial for the planet’s water supply, but also for personal health.
The JRC’s Dr. Davy Vanham noted that while water-saving measures like taking shorter showers are well-known among the public, there’s less awareness about the amount of water needed to produce food.
The United Nations Environment is working to change this. Under its #SolveDifferent campaign, the UN agency has been raising awareness about the amount of water required to produce beef.
Infographics shared on its social media uncovered that to make a hamburger with bacon and dairy cheese, more than 3,000 liters of water is used. Beef is the most resource-intensive; one patty requires 2,500 liters of water. Three bacon rashers needs 408 liters and cheese uses 151 liters.
To lower water use, the organization is promoting the consumption of plant-based foods. The UN Environment said that a vegan meat burger or vegetable patty uses 75 to 95 percent less water than beef. On top of that, it also generates 87 to 90 percent fewer emissions and requires 93 to 95 percent less land.
A smaller study found similar results, proving that personal decisions can influence global warming. Climate scientists analyzed how much carbon pollution is generated during the production of various foods. They found that, like the UN Environment reported, animal products generate drastically more emissions than vegan foods. To produce cheese, 74g of CO2 is generated, and a similarly high 52g is produced for chicken. The most staggering reveal was that of beef; a whopping 330 grams of carbon is emitted for a single serving, the equivalent of driving a car three miles. In contrast, 1.9g of CO2 is emitted to make beans and 2 grams of carbon produced during lentil production.
On World Water Day, Claire Bass, Executive Director of the UK division of the Humane Society International, urged people to make changes to save water. “Every time we go to the supermarket, the products we choose to place in our basket can really help the billions of people who are struggling to cope with severe water scarcity,” she said.
She continued, “One of the most effective ways to conserve water every day is to reduce or replace meat and dairy with plant-based options. Animal agriculture uses up huge amounts of water, not just for the billions of animals to drink but also to grow their feed, and process animal-based products.”
She added that by opting for vegan options “we can all make a big difference to animal welfare, human health and conserve the earth’s scarce resources at the same time.” It’s not new information that the meat industry is behind the struggling state of the planet.
In 2017, meat processing giant Tyson Foods, supplier to McDonald’s, was found to be responsible for 104 million tons of manure entering the water ways in the 10 years prior, contributing to water scarcity. Tyson Foods was also blamed for the largest ever ocean dead zone.
Even leading meat publication Global Meat News admitted in 2018 animal agriculture’s severe impact on the planet. Ninety-two percent of our water footprint is caused by agriculture and the production of livestock makes up roughly one third of that figure. “[O]n a per gram of protein basis, beef’s water footprint is six times that of pulses,” Global Meat News wrote.
Diet and the Environment
Animal agriculture impacts more than just water levels. It’s the leading driver of a number of environmental issues including land use, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, rising sea levels, air and water pollution, and ocean dead zones.
Another report from the UN Environment said that tackling meat was the world’s most “urgent” problem. “The greenhouse gas footprint of animal agriculture rivals that that of every car, truck, bus, ship, airplane, and rocket ship combined,” the organization highlighted, adding that there is no way to achieve objectives outlined in the Paris Agreement without “a massive decrease in the scale of animal agriculture.”
Last year, the largest-ever food production analysis was completed by Oxford researchers. The study found that eating plant-based foods can help mitigate the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, global acidification, eutrophication, land use, and water usage.
The impact of ditching animal products is “far bigger tan cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” said Joseph Pooere, who led the analysis.
Poore also said that, “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth.”