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Water usage and the Environmental Cost of Beef Production

I recently received this question:

Question for MND: meat farming is considered by some to be very resource-intensive and bad for the environment, compared with the nutrition you can get from grains and other farmed foods. I know you don’t like grains - but where does the balance lie?

And I thought I would share the answer with you, for your interest:

MotherNaturesDiet replies: Thanks, you raise a really good point, and it’s something I am going to be covering in detail in one of the books I am writing, which will be available later in the year.

Distorted data

The principle argument is a classic case of ‘distorted data’. The anti-meat lobby and many hard-line vegetarian blogs love to quote all this water-and-land usage data to argue for eating grains and not meat. They quote that it takes some huge number, 2,000 gallons or more, of fresh water to raise 1 pound of beef, therefore meat is this terrible resource-guzzling food, and so the story goes. They quote that the developing world could never all eat meat the way Americans do, because it would require so much land and fresh water to raise that much beef.

The reality is:

A) The main reason the cattle (beef) needs all that water is not to drink, it’s to grow the maize and grains that they feed to the beef. It requires vast amounts of water to irrigate the land to grow all that feed. The meat companies argue back that the water filters through the soil back into the ground, so it’s recycled, but it is not a valid argument, as that water then still has to be extracted and cleaned and used again, which requires further energy usage.

MND point to note: cows should be eating grass, not damn grain. If the cattle was free range, it would eat grass watered naturally by the rain, so now those vast amounts of irrigation water would not be required.

Sadly, even when cattle is reared outdoors, in modern farming they put far too many cattle to each field, and the grass can’t grow fast enough to keep up with the hungry cows, so it is quickly stripped, requiring additional feed and additional irrigation.

B) The developing world is only populated in such vast numbers, indeed the entire human race has only swelled to such vast numbers, because of the intensive industrial-scale farming of grains. This blog post is not the place to write an in-depth review of the whole subject of agriculture, but history shows that the Industrial Revolution was the crucial point at which the human population exploded. Once tractors started pulling ploughs instead of horses, and machines were built to mechanise every aspect of food processing and packaging, we farmed grain in vast quantities and we ‘fed the world’ fuelling explosive rapid population growth. If we all ate MND like we should, and if we had all been eating MND for the last 10,000 years, the human population still would have only just reached 3 billion, instead of the 7 billion that it is today. I will write WAY more about this another time, believe me!

C) Studies have been done, they added up all the square miles of land mass given over to producing the beef that North America consumes. That land includes the corn and grain being grown in South America to feed the cattle, the land given over to CAFOs (see picture), the feedlots where they cruelly and disgustingly, inhumanely and unhealthily feed and raise these poor miserable beasts. CAFOs are the most disturbing places, utter abominations of man’s mistreatment of animals. They added up this land, plus the areas of land destroyed by the run-off from CAFOs, plus the land required to process that run-off. Then they added the land occupied by the factories making the drugs and hormones the cattle are force fed, and they added all this land together to come up with a figure for ‘how much land in square miles is used to produce America’s beef’. The land total, in broad numbers, was equivalent to approximately 1 square mile per head of cattle raised by the US beef industry annually.

Sad irony

Ironically, for years good organic farmers have proven repeatedly, that if cows are raised naturally, organically, outdoor reared, humanely treated with respect, raised under sunshine and rain eating real fresh grass in open pasture land, then the average cow requires approximately 1 square mile per head to live a completely self-sustaining chemical-free existence. At a rate of 1 square mile of natural pasture land each, cows fertilize their own land perfectly, chemical fertilizers are not required, and no waste run-off is produced, hence no disposal required.

Unlike CAFO feedlots, disease and deformity is almost eliminated, and the ghastly stinking places are not a burden to anyone. Because the cows are not crammed into unhealthy feedlots, they do not need to be routinely filled with antibiotics (a permanent element of the CAFO diet) so they are much healthier animals, and the meat we end up eating is not tainted with those chemicals. (Some scientists suggest that we humans consume so much anti-biotic through the meat of animals that are routinely fed the drugs, that we are developing a certain level of resistance to antibiotics, hence we then need stronger doses when we take them.) As an aside, four fifths of the antibiotics consumed in the United States are consumed by cattle, not people. Some reports show that the pathogens they are trying to beat, are developing resistance to the drugs, and becoming stronger. So we mistreat the cows, the bugs get stronger, we raise the doses of drugs, the bugs get stronger…when will it end? When the bugs get so strong they kill the cows and us? Or when the meat gets so infested with drugs that we can’t eat it anymore? Answer…just go organic.

So in a gross twist of irony, there IS enough land for all that beef to be raised free range and organic, but they don’t. Clearly, organic IS better, IS POSSIBLE, is sustainable, is healthier and should not be any more expensive if the food supply industry could be completely re-invented to accommodate such thinking. Of course…that last point…will never happen.

So do not be led by these statistics that argue that eating meat is so resource intensive. Yes, it is, but it does NOT NEED to be, and those of us who pay through the nose to follow the organic, humane path, those of us following the principles I lay out in MND, we know that the alternative way IS sustainable AND humane. If we only buy good meat, raised responsibly, as outlined here in MND, then we are NOT contributing to this problem, and we are NOT supporting the poor animal treatment practices and poor environmental practices noted above.

Another clucking example

It’s a similar story with chickens. The whole world consumes a vast number of chickens, and breeders breed them under the most horrendous conditions, and it breaks my heart to see how poorly treated these birds are. I do not want to eat meat from animals who have been physically kicked around, force fed drugs, lived in cramped dark barns, wading in their own shit, suffocating in the smell, never seen daylight, fed corn and other grains, etc. It does not have to be that way.

Chickens do not want to eat grain, left to their own devices, they dig, they scratch up worms, bugs, beetles, they will eat frogs, slugs, all kinds of stuff. Chickens and most similar birds, will eat all manner of things they find, mostly bugs and other creatures…but humans AGAIN force feed them grain and confine them to ghastly concentration-camp-like living conditions.

MND tries to address and answer every imaginable aspect of the feeding of humans. I have not yet published it all online, I realise that, the site currently has about 100,000 or more words…I have over 200,000 more written in my part-finished books and in time I will get it all published. But, my 12 Core Principles have been worked out in detail after 22 years of thought and reading and research and experimenting with my own health.

7 billion of us

Only grain agriculture has allowed the human race on earth to swell to over 7 billion. 200 years ago we were 1 billion, 85 years ago we reached 2 billion, since then…boom! In one of the books I am writing, I will eventually propose what I believe to be the long term solution, which is necessarily radical, of course. Ultimately, if we want to live (ALL of us, those who have, and those who don’t) a life of health, peace and kindness, then we will need a long term (200 years, 500 years, 1000 years planning?) plan to slowly reduce our numbers. Politics and economics need to be dis-associated from the food production business, which means radical new business models, radical new government structures and much more. Much of this goes way beyond ‘healthy eating’ which is the core of MND and it will be years yet before I publish my books outlining such huge and lofty ideals. Way too much for this blog today!

So, to answer the original question, ‘where does the balance lie’ - I would say that if you follow MND’s 12 Core Principles, then I have structured it in such a way that you will be eating in a way that is sustainable, humane to animals, healthiest for your body and kindest to our natural environment - all at once, and it will not be ‘costing the earth’ in terms of resource usage. Why? How? Because you will be eating the way Mother Nature intended…and this is why I call it MotherNaturesDiet…when we tune in with Mother Nature and treat all other living things with respect and honour, if things we kill to eat; when we get in tune with  how we are MEANT to eat, then everything comes into balance, everything is in harmony, what’s good for us is also good for the animals, good for the earth, the water, the air. As with all things in the natural world, when we respect and obey Mother Nature’s laws, then we find perfect balance, perfect harmony, in all things.

Guilt trip?

The next time someone tries to guilt trip you about eating meat, they say it’s resource intensive…ask them if they really have any idea what they are talking about, which resources are they referring to? If they DO know their stuff and they talk about the fresh water, then there is a fair chance they will be wearing something made of cotton (jeans? T-shirt?). Ask them if they know how much water it took to grow their cotton, and did they realise that pound for pound, growing cotton (often in hot places where agricultural water comes at a premium) uses as much water as raising beef. Do they drive a car? It takes as much water to make the tyres on their car as it takes to raise that beef.

Not to stereotype anyone, but vegetarians regularly criticise me for eating meat, often for this same argument. Many vegetarians conveniently ignore the many animals displaced from their natural habitat to grow wheat and corn for human consumption, the slugs, snails, bugs and spiders killed by the insecticides used to produce many vegetables, the rivers that have run dry in the name of irrigation which once teemed with life, millions of fish killed to grow crops for meat-free food. While I have deep respect for the vegetarian choice, the reality is, we live on a planet where all living things are inextricably wrapped up in the never-ending circle of life, and is impossible for any living creature on Earth to eat anything that has not come from some other living thing giving up its life. The carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the circle of life is inescapable.


  • Modern beef production wastes a lot of water, is cruel to the animals and has a high impact on the environment.
  • It doesn’t HAVE to be that way, organic is sustainable and achievable.
  • If all cattle were raised properly, free range I open pasture land, organic and natural, the problems could all be solved. BUT, this would require a return to local, small-scale farming, as once was hundreds of years ago, before the industrialisation of our food supply led to vast, financially powerful, centralized food production operations. Now, large powerful, influential corporations control the land, the cattle, the grain and the meat packing industry.
  • Sadly, but realistically, in the short term, organic is likely to remain a ‘niche choice’ for the conscientious consumer.
  • The human population on Earth has only become so harmfully inflated due to intensive industrialised farming processes that started since the industrial revolution.
  • The long term answer, is human population reduction. All nations agreeing a 500-year plan to halve the population of Earth? Or we just keep breeding until war, ill-health, mass starvation or global ‘plague’ takes the decision for us. Wow, that’s a big topic for another day!

If you are interested in learning more about any of the issues mentioned in this post, you could try reading –

  • Against The Grain by Richard manning
  • The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith
  • Or check out the many books by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm – the man is one of my hero’s and he shows there is another way, it can be done. I would love my children to grow up in a world with a lot more men like Joel Salatin around.

As usual, any comments or feedback welcome, just use the comments box below. Thanks.

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