Comparing water 'usage' of UK pasture raised beef to avocadosWhy choose to compare avocado to beef? Well, they are both sources of fats which the body requires and when someone chooses a purely plant based diet they need to consider the sources of fats they consume. Yes, we are aware that some vegans do not eat avocados and in truth the majority are probably consumed by omnivores, as they vastly outnumber vegans, but the comparison was to make a point that animal foods can be a more sustainable choice than plant based.
Last year we looked into issue of water 'used' to produce beef in the UK on a Facebook post which we now revisit. Y
ou might have heard the statistic that 2400 gallons of water are 'used' to produce 1lb of beef. This figure has been thrown at us in the #REGENUARY debate so, what's the truth?
Global water supply
The amount of water on the planet is finite. It's the same now as it always has been. There are 1,400 million cubic kilometres of it on Earth, circulating through the hydrological cycle.
So, if the amount of water is always the same why should we even consider it?
Well, the issue is the same as carbon: it's not how much of it there is but where it is and in what form it is. The issue is not the amount, but more whether it's in an accessible format. So, let's change the terminology: instead of saying agriculture 'uses' water, let's say it 'borrows' water instead.
Water used in any kind of agriculture is classified as green, blue or grey.
Green water - Is rainwater that falls on the fields and has been absorbed by the plant.
Grey water - Is water polluted due to pesticides in agriculture and nutrients from fertilizers.
Let's consider how water is cycled in different types of agriculture
About 98% of all beef cattle are grain finished to varying degrees. This means they spend a proportion of their life being fed grains which have been grown in a monocrop system that will have most likely used chemical fertilisers and insecticides, unless organic.
The other approximately 1.5% continue to graze on pasture land. Both systems have a very large green water footprint because both rely heavily on rainfall; pastureland grasses are not typically irrigated.
Industrial producers also get a portion of their feed from irrigated grains, which enlarge their blue water footprint. Pastureland systems occasionally require irrigation or provide irrigated supplemental feed. This, in turn, expands its blue water footprint. The details of these systems are discussed below.
Industrial beef has a sizeable grey water footprint because of nutrient runoff (e.g., nitrogen, phosphorus) from fertilizers and pesticides applied to the corn and soy crops and contaminated runoff from mismanagement of cattle manure.
Pasture-raised beef can have a zero grey water footprint, because there is no pollution from runoff of fertilizers and pesticides.
Holistically managed beef and lamb creates new soil humus, meaning that the landscape as a whole becomes more able to use green water and hold on to it for times of drought.
Water usage for regeneratively grazed cattle
If cattle are fed only pasture in the UK, the main form of water 'used' is green - meaning rain, which, lets face it, falls in abundance in our country.
There is some usage of blue water, which is water drawn from rivers or aquifers, but this is minimal and rarely creates a problem.
In a good regenerative system there is no grey water created and new soil carbon from the action of the animals grazing improves the water holding capacity of the soil, making the land more able to hold green water, meaning it is more resistant top both flood and drought.
With us so far?
Now, let's look at the typical avocado production
Michoacán in Mexico produces 8 out of 10 Mexican avocados and 5 out of 10 avocados produced globally.
Despite this massive creation of value and success, extensive avocado production has substantial and irretrievable environmental costs and damages. Huge demand for the fruit is creating a climate change effect.
Forest lands with diverse wildlife have been destroyed to produce avocado, and many more were intentionally burned to bypass a Mexican law allowing producers to change the land-use permit to commercial agriculture instead of forest land, if it was lost to burning.
Around 9.5 billion litres of water are used daily to produce avocado – equivalent to 3,800 Olympic-sized swimming pools – requiring a massive extraction of water from Michoacán aquifers.
Excessive extraction of water from these aquifers is having unexpected consequences, including causing small earthquakes.
From 5th January to 15th February 2020, 3,247 seismic movements were recorded in Uruapan municipality and surroundings, the most important avocado-producing area in the world. According to local authorities, avocado-related water extraction has opened up subsoil caverns that could be causing these movements.
When avocado trees are irrigated, because their roots are rather horizontal, the flow through preferential infiltration is less and makes it difficult for the water to seep into the subsoil; 14 times less compared to the pine tree.
A study conducted by Carbon Footprint Ltd affirms a small pack of two avocados has an emissions footprint of 846.36g CO2, almost twice the size of one kilo of bananas (480g CO2) and three times the size of a large cappuccino with regular (conventionally produced) cows milk (235g CO2).
Photograph shows soil stripped for avocado growing in Mexico:
It's not much better in the other avocado growing areas of the world, such as Chile’s Petorca province in the Valparaíso region, where the amount of water required is 320 litres per avocado – 64 times that needed for a tomato.
Villagers in this area used to grow beans, corn, potatoes or use their lots for livestock farming. Since the end of the 1990s, however, investors have taken a liking to the province due to the cheapness of its land.
Combined with the generous revenue that avocados provide, this has set off a series of unprecedented consequences for Petorca and its inhabitants.
The combination of cheap land, private water property rights and corruption have created the foundation of today’s problems in the region.
Investors decided to buy land unsuitable for growing avocados at a low cost. Water is naturally scarce in Petorca, with droughts happening once every seven years. Combined with climate change and thirsty plantations, the local community has suffered.
Natural sources have dried up, forcing villagers to drink water brought to them weekly in truckloads. When this water was tested in 2014, it was found that levels of coliform (the bacteria found in faeces) were much higher than the legal limit. Despite this, the water is still used for drinking, cooking, washing and cleaning.
At a very low 50 litres allowance per day, people are forced to give up activities such as washing their clothes in order to cook, as well as sacrificing personal hygiene. A clear violation of their basic right to water.
Conclusion: production of beef uses less water than avocado growing
So, as we can see, the aspect of water usage that matters is where is it taken from and what are the effects of it being taken. Clearly, when we're considering the types of water and their forms, UK grass fed beef is by far the more ethical choice.