Water scarcity: A beef with industrial farming

The impacts of animal agriculture on our water resources.

Water is a fundamental resource for sustaining life around the planet—thus, increasing  commodification of water is threatening our ecosystems and communities. While issues surrounding water allocation are not new, the rapid growth in animal agriculture is putting more strain on our water resources than ever. 

Animal agriculture is one of the most significant contributors to the climate crisis. Not only is it a major cause of land clearing, biodiversity loss, and greenhouse gas emissions, it is also responsible for up to a third of all freshwater consumption in Australia. 

The Water Footprint Network estimates that beef production consumes twenty times more water than fruit and vegetables, cereals or starchy roots. Additionally, it takes around 800 litres of water to produce just one litre of cow’s milk. As cattle require significant amounts of feed to convert to body mass, significant amounts of water are required for animal consumption and crop irrigation.

However, the economic value that animal agriculture brings to the economy continues to be used by governments as justification for its destructive impacts. Every year, the beef industry alone makes almost $17 billion, and production continues to grow at an immense scale.

This has contributed to the poor health of the Murray-Darling Basin, an important water source and one of Australia’s largest and most diverse river systems. Dairy farms, along with cotton and rice industries, use trillions of litres of water per year in the basin alone, causing river flows to drop at an extremely worrying pace.

Further, reduced water quality, associated with runoff of fertilisers and pesticides, is causing Australian flora and fauna ecosystems to suffer. There has been a 50% decrease in wetland bird species, and 450 plant species are threatened with extinction through salinity. The runoff from animal agriculture has also caused a rapid increase in algae blooms, creating ocean dead zones and mass suffocation to marine life.

With Australia facing record levels of drought and low rainfall due to the growing impact of climate change, over-extraction is pushing Australia to the brink of a water crisis.  Those in rural communities, who are still recovering from the most recent bushfires, are most vulnerable to such crises. In towns such Menindee and Pooncarie, drinking water is mainly sourced from donated supplies as their tap water is undrinkable. At times, water supply has been completely cut off, forcing residents to survive on emergency reserves. 

It is impossible to balance sustainable water usage whilst feeding the population under a capitalist model of food production.

Capitalism monopolises water allocation, allowing agricultural industries to use up huge amounts of water all in the name of private profit. 

If we truly want to use water sustainably, industries must stop being over-dependent on our water resources for profit. Governments and corporations need to employ values of respect and balance in decisions about water allocation, invest in technologies that improve water efficiency, and move away from water-intensive agriculture.

It is crucial that we start to incorporate Indigenous knowledge in water planning, and fundamentally rethink our relationship with water. In particular, we need to recognise how valuable our river systems are in a number of intertwined ways–they are a part of a culturally significant landscape, they provide a lifeline for regional and rural communities, and they have the potential to sustain future water-related business and employment.

“If the water is healthy, Country is healthy. If Country is healthy then the People and Culture will be healthy.”

As this Indigenous proverb outlines, protecting water is not just about sustaining life, but also sustaining the development of communities. If we don’t allocate our finite supplies of water more justly, we may soon be left thirsting for the world’s most vital resource.