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Water Conservation, Ecological Health, and Vegetarianism

by Harold W. Wood, Jr.

Originally published in Sequoia Alliance Newsletter, June 20, 1989.


One of the interesting things about vegetarianism is how defensive non-vegetarians are. So frequently, people who prefer to not eat meat are castigated as lunatics, crazies, or even worse, as anti-American and anti-farmer. When I recently wrote a letter to the Visalia Times-Delta pointing out that less consumption of red meat would contribute to water conservation, I was vilified by letters from the Presidents of the local Farm Bureau and Cattleman's Association, denouncing not my facts, but my intelligence and my purported eating habits. John Rodgers, President of the Tulare Cattleman's Association, suggested that my intelligence was detrimentally affected by vegetarian eating habits, and made the absurd remark that we need cattle to graze in the foothills to keep all those "worthless bushes" at bay.

Even worse, one cattleman called me on the telephone to harass me for my viewpoint!

I think it is sad that differences in opinion have to be responded to with personal attacks rather than the facts. This is especially lamentable in this case, since I do not even pretend to be a vegetarian!

All I had originally pointed out in my original letter was that a vegetarian diet could be less wasteful of water and resources than meat-based diets, and were generally more healthy. I provided the statistic that it takes approximately 2500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. This figure includes not only the direct consumption of water by cattle, but also the water used to grow cattle feed and used in processing. None of the gentlemen vilifying me sought to verify this fact, but simply castigated it as "nonsense," saying "I should know better" - - - based on what they considered "common sense."

The source of the 2500 gallons of water figure is Professor George Borgstrom, a professor of food science at Michigan State University, a noted authority on global nutrition. This is a fully reputable source. I later confirmed this figure locally with the Tulare County Agricultural Extension Service, which also pointed out that some practices, such as modern dairy farming, do seek to reduce the use of water in cattle production by recycling. The Extension Service also noted that livestock can convert plants which otherwise would have little use to humans to usable protein, thus arguing in favor of allowing livestock some extra use of water.

In fact, agricultural and livestock uses account for 85% of the water use in California. It still seems ludicrous to me for people to be told to forego a glass of water in a restaurant (as happens locally), or to stop washing their cars, when far more water is consumed by eating beef and fast foods. One can save 2500 gallons in one fell swoop by foregoing a hamburger and a steak once a week.

Proof that the farming industry could conserve water was given recently by a Fresno agribusiness firm which received a $24,000 grant to install a drip irrigation system to reduce both water and energy costs by 50%. Clearly, much more can be done to conserve water in the agriculture industry, nationally and globally, both to the benefit of consumers and for the farmers themselves. One of the easiest ways would be to reduce live-stock production: the fact remains that it takes far less water to simply produce grain, soybeans, or other vegetable products to be directly consumed by human beings, than to grow animal feed which is then fed to cattle and other livestock.

I do not necessarily advocate a strict vegetarian diet, but I do not understand how the President of the Tulare Cattleman's Association can say "no reputable health expert believes that a vegetarian diet is more healthful," when the American Heart Association has made reducing red meat consumption a major component of their campaign for better health, and this position is supported by many doctors and nutritionists.

It is true that range fed cattle may efficiently produce protein in areas which otherwise would not produce human food. But the suggestion that cattle can use non-arable land still does not answer the question about their ecological destructiveness, since in the United States range-fed cattle are insignificant in terms of total beef production;most consumption of water in cattle production is not from direct livestock consumption, but from the grains, roughage,and other crops that are grown as cattle feed.

Unquestionably, cattle production has been responsible for massive destruction of ecosystems, such as the grasslands which are now sagebrush in much of the American West. In California, introduced cattle has meant the loss of incredible biological diversity in California's Central Valley, a fact of historical record. Moreover, as studies in East Africa are showing, in many cases native game are more efficient at producing protein per acre than are cattle. Just as ecologists are learning that "game ranching" is more productive with far less ecological impacts than cattle ranching, in the grassland ecosystems of East Africa, I wonder if we could not have preserved much more of California's diverse ecosystems and still have provided high-quality protein nutrition for human beings in California's Central Valley if we had turned to game ranching of native wildlife - Tule elk, pronghorn, deer, and waterfowl - which were once so abundant in the area. Instead, we brought in domestic cattle which quickly eliminated native plant life and eventually caused the demise of most native grasses in our area as well as vast numbers of wildlife species. Furthermore, domestic cattle need much more water than native wildlife species, and in a semi-arid environment such as the San Joaquin Valley it makes sense to use species which are adapted to dryland grazing. Perhaps California is not ready for game ranching, but that does not mean that it should not be encouraged in places such as Kenya or Tanzania where it is found to be more suitable than cattle ranching.

My concern for water conservation is not confined solely to Tulare County where I live, but is directed at other parts of California, the U.S., and the world, where water use for agriculture often fails to use new, more efficient systems of irrigation. In some cases, such as the Oglalla Aquifer in Colorado, this means substantial depletion of groundwater resources. How long will it be, with increasing population, that San Joaquin Valley groundwater resources will likewise be endangered?

I have experimented with a vegetarian diet off and on for 25 years, and the more I learn about the ecological costs of livestock production, global hunger, the inefficiency in terms of production of protein of using livestock instead of vegetable kinds of food, the harm to our natural ecosystems from livestock grazing, the harmful effects of cholesterol and fat in our diet, and the relative healthfulness of Seventh-Day Adventists and other groups throughout history who have adhered to a vegetarian diet, the more I am convinced that the less meat one eats the more responsible a global citizen one becomes. Because I have no real moral compunction about eating flesh, but do have a strong concern about global ecological health, I have always considered it appropriate to be an "ovo-lacto-pisces" vegetarian, eating some eggs, milk and fish. After moving to Visalia, I found it was much harder to avoid at least poultry. Because my wife and I enjoy eating out occasionally, and we relish many ethnic foods (Thai, Chinese, Indian, Mexican), we find it very difficult to maintain strict vegetarian diets, although at least we do not follow a meat-based "steak and potatoes" diet which is so typical an American tradition. Although in the San Francisco Bay Area there are many vegetarian restaurants and even most regular restaurants provide many creative vegetarian alternatives, in Visalia and Fresno there is very little variety if you attempt to remain a vegetarian when eating out. When traveling, it is especially hard to avoid eating meat.

Someday, perhaps, when we attain True Civilization, we will have fast-food "veggie burger" or falafel franchises; a restored Tule elk and pronghorn population will provide quality game-ranching protein in the San Joaquin Valley; salmon will once again run in the San Joaquin River; there will be more wildlife habitat and dryland farming and less irrigated crops for cattle; people won't suffer nearly as much from meat-induced cancer and other illnesses; and a beef-based diet will be a quaint thing of the past -- a historical anomaly.


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