Industrial Agriculture’s Water Use: It’s Time for Change

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“Water Matters” brings attention to the necessary changes we all must make to protect our most critical and vital resource: water. This book brings together leading environmental writers and activists to delve into our water crisis. 
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A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture survey reported the United States applied 30 trillion gallons of irrigation water to 55 million acres of cropland in 2008.
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 This awesome infographic shows how much water is used to produce several of the foods we eat. 

The following is an excerpt from Water Matters, editedby Tara Lohan (AlterNet Books, 2010). A collection of essays by experts in environmental issues and water conservation, Lohan has created a go-to guidebook for the important ways we need to change to preserve our healthy waterways and drinking water supply. This excerpt is from the essay “Agriculture’s Big Thirst” by Wenonah Hauter. 

You know things are bad when reservoirs are converted into cornfields. On a 2008 trip from Beijing, I searched in vain for a glimpse of the Miyun reservoir that once provided drinking water for Beijing’s 17 million residents. Instead of lapping waves, there was an ocean of corn. The water was gone.  

This sight may become more common as water-intensive agricultural practices collide with water scarcity. Agriculture is the single largest user of water worldwide, dwarfing everything else. Drinking, cooking, and washing by six billion people combined with all industrial water consumption pale in comparison to watering crops and livestock. Global agriculture uses nearly two quadrillion gallons of rainwater and irrigation water annually–enough to cover the entire United States with 2 feet of water.  

Obviously, crops and animals need water to thrive and sustain a hungry and growing population, but intensive agricultural practices exert more stress on watersheds than rainfed cultivation of ecologically appropriate crops. Even irrigation can sustainably maintain fields during periods of drought. But the worldwide expansion of industrial-scale cultivation of water-intensive crops and feedlots on more marginal land magnifies the pressure on already overstretched water resources. In America, recent high crop prices spurred increased corn cultivation in more arid regions of the high plains and the Rockies. In Central Asia, irrigation of cotton has almost completely eliminated the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world. 

The scale of water withdrawal from rivers, reservoirs, and groundwater for agriculture taxes available water resources. In the developing world, 85 percent of water withdrawals go toward agriculture; rich countries funnel 40 percent of water to agriculture.  

Industrial agriculture’s use of water is a cycle of overuse, waste and pollution. Unfortunately, most of us are a part of that cycle, too. What we eat and how we grow our food is key to our global water crisis. Your hamburger, cup of coffee, and cotton shirt have a water footprint that is determined by the industrial agriculture model. (Check out the infographic in the Image Gallery to see how much water is in different foods and products.) But we have the power to change this model, if we can harness the political will of a new generation of consumers, farmers, and activists. 

Agribusiness’s Big Thirst   

Farmers are not solely responsible for the tremendous pressure industrialized agriculture puts on water systems. The handful of giant agribusinesses and food processing companies that dominate the food chain keep farm prices low, which only pushes farmers to produce more. Most farmers resort to water-intensive and chemical-dependent practices to sell enough farm products to make a living.  

In the United States and around the world, only a few companies sell the seeds, buy the harvests, slaughter the livestock, and turn farm products into the food consumers buy. Farms that are far away from wealthy metropolitan areas are especially dependent on agribusiness buyers. The four largest firms in the United States slaughter 84 percent of the cattle, crush 80 percent of the soybeans and process 66 percent of the hogs. Even in recent years, when prices were higher, the few companies that sold seeds, fertilizers and fuel could jack up their prices, so higher production costs gobbled most of the gains from increased farm prices. Two corn seed firms (Monsanto and DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred) control about 60 percent of the seed market and 80 percent of U.S. corn is grown from Monsanto-patented seed traits. In 2009 and 2010, the leading corn seed companies raised prices between 20 and 40 percent. 

What This Means for Irrigation  

Irrigation has been used for thousands of years to increase agricultural productivity and provide a safeguard against drought. But in the past fifty years, mechanical irrigation pumps and sprinklers brought more marginal land into cultivation. Irrigated cultivation is the single largest consumer of global water resources–amounting to 660 trillion to 1 quadrillion gallons annually. Increased water extraction has overtapped watersheds, and poorly designed irrigation systems can make fields so waterlogged or salt-laden that soil fertility is completely compromised. 

A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture survey reported the United States applied 30 trillion gallons of irrigation water to 55 million acres of cropland in 2008. As crop prices rose between 2003 and 2008, farmers irrigated 2.4 million more acres of cropland and installed 31,000 more wells. Even wealthy countries have been slow to adopt more efficient irrigation techniques despite leaks and losses from wasteful irrigation systems. Only about 4 percent of U.S. irrigated cropland uses more efficient drip or precision irrigation systems. 

In the developing world, irrigated farmland doubled to about 500 million acres between the 1960s and 2000. Most irrigated cultivation in the developing world uses two to three times more water than crops require, which wastes between half and 80 percent of irrigation water through leaks, runoff and evaporation.  

The rising pressure on water systems from increasing irrigation has strained groundwater and river resources. Today, many aquifers are pumped for irrigation beyond their recharge capacity in parts of the United States, China, India and North Africa. China’s water withdrawals are 25 percent higher than the recharge rate, and parts of Northern India pump 50 percent more water than the aquifers can refill. 

The rush to biofuels provides a cautionary example of how changes in agriculture markets can wreak havoc on water supplies. In recent years, the pursuit of biofuel sources encouraged industrial agriculture to guzzle even more water. As gasoline prices skyrocketed during 2007 and 2008, investment in new ethanol plants drove up demand for corn, resulting in more cultivation, more irrigation, and more chemical fertilizer and pesticide application. The increased demand for corn brought more acres of corn into production–including 2.2 million new acres of irrigated corn, a 22 percent increase between 2003 and 2008. Adding further pressure to the water table, it takes about four gallons of water to produce each gallon of ethanol–or an estimated 52 billion gallons of water in 2010. Much of the water used to irrigate corn and refine ethanol is drawn from the ever-threatened Ogallala aquifer, which runs beneath eight western U.S. states and provides nearly a third of all U.S. irrigation water. Ninety-seven percent of the Ogallala water withdrawal is used for agriculture and some sections of the aquifer have drained over 150 feet since the 1950s. Since the refineries draw from the same overtapped aquifers as the corn farms, these plants can compete with rural communities for scarce water resources. 

Factory Farm Faucets  

Industrial scale livestock operations crammed with thousands of hogs, tens of thousands of cattle or even hundreds of thousands of chickens consume torrents of water. In the United States, livestock operations withdraw more than two billion gallons of water every day. Small and medium-sized livestock farms are disappearing under pressure from these factory farms and giant meatpackers and processors. As recently as 1992, a quarter million U.S. farmers raised hogs. In just over a decade, the number plummeted 70 percent by 2004. Despite the declining number of farms, the number of hogs stayed the same, as the remaining farms got much larger. In 1992, less than a third of hogs were raised on farms with more than 2,000 animals, but by 2007, 95 percent of hogs were raised on these giant operations.  

These crowded, hot animals need a lot of water, not only to drink but also to flush their waste out of the buildings where they are confined. Each factory farm-raised hog drinks about five gallons of water daily. It takes more than 150 gallons a day to maintain a cow on mega-dairies and about 20 gallons for beef cattle on industrial feedlots, including water for drinking as well as hosing down the dairies and feedlots. Now, thirsty factory farms have expanded into Central Europe, the former Soviet Union, Brazil, Mexico, India, China and the Philippines, as well as dry areas of the U.S., such as New Mexico. Today, industrial livestock facilities produce about two-thirds of the world’s poultry meat and eggs and more than half the world’s pork. 

Toxic Pollutants  

While water dedicated to irrigate crops and slake livestock depletes water resources, pollution from industrialized farms degrades downstream water supplies and aquifers. Fertilizers, pesticides, and manure from factory farms constitute the leading pollution source for America’s impaired rivers and lakes, and a major cause of water impairment for the country’s estuaries. 

Over the last 50 years, the use of synthetic fertilizer in the United States has nearly tripled, rising from 7.5 million tons in 1960 to 22.9 million tons in 2007. These fertilizers are often over-applied. A Cornell University study found that most farmers apply twice as much nitrogen fertilizers than the crops need, which lets excess nitrogen enter the water supply. When nitrogen fertilizer leaches into groundwater, it forms nitrate. Too much nitrate in drinking water has been linked to adverse human health effects, including methemoglobinemia (“blue-baby syndrome”) which can be fatal. Chronic exposure to drinking water contaminated with nitrates also has been linked to cancer, thyroid disease and diabetes.

Fertilizer runoff can saturate coastal waters with nutrients that generate oxygen-depleting algae blooms that create “dead zones” where most aquatic life cannot survive. Farms in the Corn Belt were the main source of the pollution that created the growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. These oxygen-depleted estuaries have also become increasingly common worldwide.

The industrial agriculture model also deploys a toxic cocktail of pesticides and herbicides that can contaminate surface and groundwater. The use of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and other chemical applications in the United States more than doubled since the 1960s, rising from 215 million pounds in 1964 to 494 million pounds in 2004. One in 15 urban streams had pesticide levels that exceeded at least one human health benchmark between 1992 and 2001, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.The survey found that half of rural streams and three-quarters of urban streams had pesticide levels that were above key water quality criteria for aquatic life–and a quarter of rural streams and half of urban streams exceeded aquatic life benchmarks for DDT, which has been banned for nearly 40 years. 

It’s a global problem, too. International trade in pesticides has doubled over the past 25 years, with global imports rising 97 percent from 1990 to 2006. Many developing countries produce fruit and vegetables for export to wealthy consumers, and these crops represent more than one-fourth of global pesticide applications. The adoption of agrochemical farming in the developing world can have significant public health impacts. Pesticides poison an estimated 25 million farmworkers in the developing world each year. A 2008 study in India found that farming communities with higher pesticide use had significantly higher cancer rates, and that the pesticides likely contributed to these higher levels of disease.  

It’s not just the inputs that are toxic. Commercial confined livestock and poultry operations produce an estimated 500 million tons of manure each year, three times more than the entire U.S. population. Taxpayer-financed USDA programs spent $179 million between 2003 and 2007 to cover manure management costs for industrial dairies and hog operations alone. The Union of Concerned Scientists has estimated that it would cost $4 billion just to fully mitigate the soil damage caused by large-scale hog and dairy operations. The manure is usually over-applied to fields–contributing to the nutrient loads that runoff to surface water and lead to coastal dead zones–or stored in lagoons that can leak or burst, degrading watersheds and contaminating groundwater. 

Globalized Food Trade Taps Rural Water Supplies  

Global trade in agricultural products–and the freshwater it takes to produce these commodities and food products–can exert even more pressure on watersheds. The water withdrawals used to cultivate the global agriculture trade is known as “virtual water.” Even mundane things contain a tremendous amount of virtual water used to grow and process crops into consumer goods. For example, an 8-ounce cup of coffee contains 37 gallons of virtual water and a pair of leather shoes represents 2,000 gallons of water. (Check out the infographic in the Image Gallery to see how much water are in different foods and products.) One seventh of worldwide agricultural water consumption goes toward exports. Global virtual water trade in crops and livestock represents more than 300 trillion gallons of water annually. 

When irrigated corn grown with water drawn from the overstretched Ogallala aquifer is exported, the communities that rely on that water see it shipped out of their community. The same is true with products we import. The fruits and vegetables grown in arid areas of Mexico and Africa for American and European consumers compound the water scarcity of these communities.  

The agriculture trade in virtual water merely offshores the environmental costs of industrial agricultural production. The exporting nation depletes water resources and discharges agriculture pollutants to produce the food it ships overseas. For example, the international meat trade involves exporting corn and soybeans to factory farms that in turn ship the meat to overseas consumers. According to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences this process can “substantially alter the magnitude and the pattern of global resource use and result in rising pressure on environmental resources in producing regions to sustain feed and meat use in consuming regions.” 

Exporting Unsustainable Agriculture to the Developing World 

Today, big agribusiness is using the 2008 global food crisis to justify an expansion of industrialized agriculture in the developing world. Although the crisis was brought about by skyrocketing prices, not lack of production, the seed, agrochemical, and grain trading companies are calling for a second “Green Revolution.” The initial Green Revolution introduced large-scale, agrochemical-dependent farming techniques to much of Asia and Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s in order to stave off famine. It also effectively delivered the developing world’s agricultural production into the hands of the seed, fertilizer and grain trading companies. 

The program, driven by philanthropists, development agencies, and international financial institutions like the World Bank, brought high-yield conventional crops to the developing world. But the Green Revolution also transformed these countries’ diverse food production systems into single-crop monocultures (chiefly rice, corn and wheat) that relied on high-cost seeds, agrochemicals, and intensive water use and irrigation. Even Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug, the godfather of the Green Revolution, noted that the rapid rise of ill-planned irrigation schemes to accommodate the new crops in Asia often led to waterlogged or salty fields, which reduced agricultural productivity. 

After the 2008 food crisis, a new generation of philanthropists led by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development are pushing to renew investment in industrial agriculture in the developing world. Many donors and agribusinesses also are pressing for the adoption of genetically modified crops as a promised remedy for global hunger and climate change. So far, there have been little or no productivity gains from genetically modified seeds that are widely used in the United States and no drought-tolerant seeds have been developed. All of the biotechnology solutions rely on high-cost seeds and heavy agrochemical applications, and in the United States much of the GM corn and soybeans are heavily irrigated. Nonetheless, proponents continue to focus on the prospect of a biotechnology breakthrough instead of investing in proven farming techniques and policies that are suited to local conditions.  

Agribusiness-driven solutions of globalization and a renewed global push for industrial agriculture cannot resolve the food system’s pressure on soil, water, and the environment. A truly sustainable solution will not come from the corporate interests that got us into this mess. A new food, farm, and environmental social movement focused on sustainability and equity must challenge the corporate-controlled food chain.  

A growing body of strong scientific evidence is demonstrating that sustainable agriculture can feed the planet, fight climate change and reduce the water footprint of industrial agriculture. In 2009, a World Bank-sponsored scientific review found that industrial agriculture had so degraded soil fertility and water resources that the global food and farming system needed a transformational overhaul. The director of this peer-reviewed International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology concluded, “Business as usual is not an option.” A 2008 UN study found that low-impact agriculture could increase yields and improve food security and farmer incomes while reducing environmental degradation. A 2007 University of Michigan study concluded “organic agriculture has the potential to contribute quite substantially to the global food supply, while reducing the detrimental environmental impacts of conventional agriculture.” 

Many families are embracing organic agriculture and local foods as part of an alternative to industrial farming. Increasing numbers of people are looking to understand where their food comes from and are turning away from the corporate food giants and toward farmer’s markets, urban agriculture programs, and direct marketing arrangements with independent farmers. Many are even trying their hand at growing their own food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture found a 200 percent increase in farmer’s markets from 1994 to 2009 and the National Gardening Association estimated that 1 million new food gardens were being planted in 2010. Local food is becoming a hot topic, with an organic garden at the White House and even a reality “Food Revolution” show on network TV.  

We need to build on this momentum. The growing awareness of food and farming has focused attention on the corporate control of America’s kitchens. But we cannot shop our way out of business as usual; big policy changes are needed as well to break up agribusiness monopolies and support small and medium-sized family farms. If we are to feed future generations, our long-term goal must be to create a food system based on sustainable, diversified family farms that are providing food locally and regionally. If we remain on the current path, industrialized agriculture will drain the planet’s freshwater resources and leave only agrochemical pollutants in its place. The choice is ours, but we must do the work that is necessary to realize this vision for the future.

Reprinted with permission from Water Matters, published by AlterNet Books (2010).

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