The Effects of Veganism on Water Quantity and Quality

Wolfe Rygaard

Veganism, the practice of removing animal products from your diet, has gone from being a word you use to impress third graders to a term that’s plastered all over the internet. When many think about vegans, peculiar protests by the likes of PETA likely come to mind. Despite their questionable methods, these organizations do have a point when it comes to the benefits veganism has on the environment. For example, veganism can improve both water quantity and water quality.

Looking at water quantity first, it’s no mystery that water is required to produce the food on your table. However, the amount of water required varies drastically between plant and animal products. Meat, for example, is extremely water-intensive with the poultry’s 500 gallons of water per pound of product being the lowest. In case you’re wondering, a single hamburger (1/4 beef Patty) consumes about 460 gallons of water. With some quick math (460 x 4), we can see that a single pound of beef uses a whopping 1,840 gallons of water. For reference, a pound of wheat can be produced with as little as 110 gallons of water. It should be noted that water isn’t created by shifting to plant-based products. However, the reduction in water use results in a net gain. It’s like how you save money when you cancel that subscription you no longer use. Your paycheck stays the same, but now you can use your subscription money elsewhere.
Vegan Australia

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed industrial agriculture as the leading cause of water pollution in the United States. This is largely in part due to the increased popularity of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO). CAFOs can hold thousands of animals which leads to massive amounts of animal waste. This waste, often due to rain, can find its way into rivers and streams, harming the surrounding environment. For example, the reduction in water quality alone could be enough to kill off some aquatic species. The greater problem is known as eutrophication. Animal waste tends to be high in nitrogen and phosphate, two nutrients that algae need to grow. Increasing the amount of nitrogen and phosphate in the water leads to a rapid increase in algae populations until there is what’s known as an algal bloom, which is an abundance of algae. The problem occurs once the algal bloom consumes the excess nutrients. As quickly as the population exploded, it plummets. In response, decomposers begin feasting on the organic material. This process consumes oxygen; so much that entire areas become dead zones, or areas with too little oxygen to support life. In short, eutrophication can eventually lead to fish kill, or the rapid depletion of a fish population by lowering the oxygen levels of a body of water.
National Geographic

People aren’t safe from the troubles brought on by the animal waste from CAFOs. Not only can people get sick by swimming in animal waste-infested waters, but animal waste has also been shown to leach or seep into groundwater and cause disease once ingested. The most common example is blue-baby syndrome. Given its name for the bluish color that appears on the baby’s skin, this color is brought about due to low oxygen levels. The condition is often linked to elevated nitrate levels in drinking water. As previously mentioned, nitrogen is found in high concentrations in animal waste. Besides nitrogen, animal waste also contains pathogens, which only adds to the list of diseases and complications.

This is supposed to be the part where I tell you to make the change and become vegan but I’d be lying if I said that I believed veganism is the solution. Whether it’s due to cultural traditions or financial circumstances, the vegan lifestyle simply isn’t for everyone. Not all is lost though. The benefits of veganism, with regard to water, can still be attained with a reduction in meat consumption. It could be a new routine, such as participating in Meatless Monday. It could be something as small as opting for a simple burger instead of the triple burger with extra bacon. Either way, you don’t have to be a vegan to improve the world around you.


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I am an environmental scientist who currently resides in Puerto Rico. I’m also passionate about basketball and Tottenham Hotspur.

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