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

Learn how modern agriculture’s reliance on irrigation, pesticides, and herbicides, and how it hurts our water supplies worldwide.

| June 17, 2011

  • Water Matters
    “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. 
  • Industrial Agriculture Irrigation
    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.
  • Water Used In Foods
     This awesome infographic shows how much water is used to produce several of the foods we eat. 

  • Water Matters
  • Industrial Agriculture Irrigation
  • Water Used In Foods

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. 

B Knight
6/23/2011 11:33:38 AM

I have to agree with most of Abbey's initial comments. Throwing around some numbers only gives a false impression of validity to this article. I DO agree that changes/regulations are required to control factory farming. Manure treatment needs to be strictly regulated for example. However, expecting small family farms to take over the "business" of factory farming will never happen - unless you can cut the world population in half. Farm irrigation techniques in North America is regulated today. As you can see from the numbers quoted in this article, very little irrigation is used in North America compared to the rest of the world. The author needs to address Non-Food producing water use, which is completely ignored. Urban grass irrigation for example, is a complete misuse of water resources. Parks, golf courses, individual lawns, etc, should not be allowed to use ground water. With local plants, these items can survive summer droughts. They will go dormant and won't look as "pretty", but we need to stop "keeping up with the Jones". To start, every household and business needs to use water conservation and harvesting. Rain barrels are simple and easy to install and use.

Abbey Bend
6/22/2011 11:33:44 AM

This article is an interesting blend of a few truth, precious few, and a great deal of fictional fear mongering, or in otherwords, what a bunch of trash talk! Just because someone takes some facts and peppers them through out the article, does make the rest of the article in any way rational or factual, just gives the ring of having done something for the environment! I have become very tired of the diatribes by ignorant people, not doing any research or thinking about what they are writing and claiming they are trying to save the world. There is not enough space here to list all of the half-truths in this article, or the lack of reasonable research done by the author. Water is not acuatlly short anywhere people live, it is misused, but not actually in short supply. Instead of changing what we are doing with water in daily lives, we want to work out ways to create famines around the world? That is where so much of the thinking is going today, and it is time to change it. Do this people really think reducing the food supply is going to make things better? If that is what you think, then go to the Sudan and tell me how it is working for you! Look at t.brandt's comment, it is true and makes sense. It is time to look at things from a more positive view, to see what corporation have done for us, (where did the Gates Foundation get its money, how are we communicating to read this?) and quit the destructive whining and name calling! Get real, get this stupidity out of Mother Earth.

Mary Saunders_3
6/22/2011 11:17:07 AM

Janine Benyus of TED Talks fame, has a plan for Lang Fang, China, to restore an ancient aquifer. HOK is the firm with which she has worked to make a plan to re-tree and to install diverse plant systems. Plans exist that compete with the Gates/Monsanto model. It is a race to see which approach will see more installations in the coming decade.

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