The real cost of meat

Not a drop to drink

The meat industry uses a third of the world’s freshwater—directly or indirectly. The global production of meat is moving towards doubling, from 229 million metric tons in the year 2000 to a projected 465 million metric tons, by 2050. The burden on this planet’s water resources is already unsustainable. To understand the gravity of this situation, consider this fact—if every country in the world were to follow the high meat consumption patterns of America, the world would have already run out of water in the year 2000.  However with India and China becoming increasingly non vegetarian, we are going to run out of water in another 25 years—and many of you will be alive to see this.

40 billion animals are killed every year. The largest number of victims of this annual massacre is chickens, so while they are smaller than cattle, they make up in sheer numbers.

Poultry is a booming industry in India, with chicken meat being projected to the masses as a cheap and nutritious food. One kilogram of chicken in India can be bought for as less as INR100, which is sometimes cheaper than even daal! For some reason, eating chicken is seen as aspirational—with families declaring their status by eating this flightless bird, rather than beef or mutton, as they climb the social ladder. Foreign fast food chains are popularising it—except that what you eat in most of them is not chicken but a kind of pink slime which is architecturally made to look like chicken. The Global Agricultural Information Network says that the consumption of processed chicken in India is rising rapidly at 15-20 percent per year. In 2017, chicken production increased by 7 percent, reaching 4.5 million tonnes. According to the Indian Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying, and Fisheries, an estimated 2.38 billion chickens were slaughtered for their meat in 2016/17 in India. About 70 percent of this poultry production is controlled by large companies, which run hatcheries, feed mills and slaughter facilities—using huge amounts of water at every stage of production.

Water is used for producing the grain feed for chickens, for their drinking, maintenance of their surroundings, for killing and cleaning the birds and then processing their meat. Poultry creates a huge amount of water pollution at different stages of production, so that water cannot be recycled, used for crops or drunk. This water is full of antibiotics and pesticides and creates a massive health problem if anything is grown using it. These two factors combined—water used and water polluted—create the high water footprint of poultry.

The amount of birds slaughtered in 2016/17 amounts to more than double the population of India. Even if poultry production only took one litre of water per chicken, this would mean that about 2.38 billion litres of water would be used up per year—more than what is available to the humans in all the villages of North India. But the real amount of water used is far, far more than that.

Trickle-up effect

Poultry birds consume corn, soybean meal, pearl millet, broken wheat and broken rice—mostly concentrates, which are grown with artificial irrigation. On an average, the production of one kilogram of these concentrates requires 1000 litres of water. If poultry birds were being fed the natural way, by being allowed to graze, the concentrates required would be 40 percent of total feed. But the modern industrial poultry confines them to small cages where they have to be fed 70 percent concentrates in the bird feed. Since most farms use chemical fertilisers to expedite the growth of feed, they pollute many more litres of water in the process, adding to the water footprint.

In a poultry facility with 1000 birds, approximately 400 litres of water is used daily for drinking purposes. Modern broiler houses, which have cramped cages with birds in spaces that they cannot even raise their wings, need cooling systems to keep the hot, irritable birds alive. These cooling systems utilise large amounts of water during hot weather. More water is also used in clearing the excreta and the shed feathers of the birds, and cleaning the area.

Birds are stunned in huge electric water baths before being killed. These use a large amount of water and have to be changed frequently as the birds defecate and urinate as they die. Their bodies are dipped into boiling water for the process of scalding—to help remove feathers. After this, the body is again dipped in cold water to maintain the quality of its skin.

Thousands of litres of water go into evisceration—the removal of the internal organs of the bird, to make it ready for consumption. Water is used in the cleaning and sanitation of equipment and facilities, and for cooling the compressors and pumps. Just the processing of the dead body is estimated to take 35 litres of water per bird. Multiply that by 2.38 billion dead birds. The wastewater let out from these processing plants contains pollutants and suspended matter. This is usually not treated properly before being let out, and it pollutes the water in the surrounding areas making it unfit for any other use.

On an average, an estimated 4,325 litres of water goes into the production of just one kilogram of chicken meat. When you eat a kilogram of chicken, you are drinking 4,325 litres—more water than the amount received by a single village in Uttar Pradesh in a week. This compares to 322 litres for one kg of vegetables, 962 litres for one kg of fruit and 1,644 litres for a kg of cereals and grains.

India has the best vegetarian food in the world, and the largest array of vegetables and grains. Pulses and soya are good alternative sources of protein, which require much less water. One gram of protein from chicken uses 34 litres of water for its production. The same gram of protein from pulses uses only 19 litres of water.

India is not in a position to be indulging in water wastage for this kind. Water shortage, drought and famine are a present reality for us. Richer countries are importing virtual water from us in the form of chicken and eggs, but it will be developing countries like ours that will first feel the effects of a world without water.

No, you cannot do what Israel is doing: using machines to turn the ocean water into drinking water. The oceans are being rapidly drained of fish and already there are a large number of dead zones in the ocean where nothing grows—you can look these up on Google. The water is dead and no one can use it for anything. If you want to become an environmentalist and humanitarian, you don’t have to do anything more than ceasing to eat meat.

To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org