How meat and dairy production are driving drought

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Get JIFA’s support to help your community transition its food away from wasteful production practices toward water-saving menus and dining programs. Together, we can put into action Jewish values of protecting the Earth–shmirat ha’adamah–while contributing to a more sustainable, resilient food system. We’ll help you get started with a few simple steps shared to your email.

God said to the first human being: ‘See My creations, how beautiful and exemplary they are... Make certain that you do not ruin and destroy My world, as if you destroy it, there will be no one to mend it after you.'

As Jews, we often teach that Torah, the centerpiece of Jewish life, is as vital as water. Today, one of the major threats to vibrant Jewish life–and life everywhere–is the shortage of fresh water. Though this resource can often seem limitless, we are facing an unprecedented period of drought throughout much of the United States driven in large part by industrial animal agriculture. Our responsibility is clear: connect the dots between our dietary habits and drought and urge our communities to promote sustainability and conservation through the food we serve. Inspired by Torah-based values, we can act to preserve the very life source upon which all living communities depend.

What is the connection between animal agriculture and the drought much of the country is experiencing today?

The answer is two-fold. First, animal agriculture directly uses a lot of our freshwater resources. In the US, where 60% of freshwater is used just for growing crops, common animal feed crops like corn, soy, and other grains require massive amounts of irrigation that could go directly to crops for direct human consumption. For example, 79% of the water in the Colorado River Basin is used for agriculture, with about half being used directly for cattle feed crops like alfalfa and hay. Second, the scale of animal agriculture is driving climate change, leading to increasingly severe droughts and aridification. While providing only 18% of global calorie consumption, animal agriculture uses around 83% of the world’s farmland and contributes about 56% of food’s greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock production alone is responsible for about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

What is the water footprint of an animal-based diet?

The water going into producing a hamburger isn’t just the water a cow needs to drink. Most of meat’s water footprint is actually from water needed to grow livestock feed. This introduces an unavoidable inefficiency in water use on our plates: compared to the 450 gallons of water required for a beef hamburger patty, a soy-based veggie burger only uses about 30 gallons.

How can Jewish communities support water conservation?

One of the biggest ways Jewish communities can reduce their water footprint is by shifting the food they buy, specifically by reducing the amount of meat and dairy served. An effective strategy to promote more sustainable food practices is to make delicious, plant-based foods the default option in buffets and plated meals, while still giving people the choice to opt-in to animal products. Serving plant-based by default can reduce the water footprint of your meals by up to two thirds, saving thousands of gallons of water per Shabbat dinner or other meal.