We’re Eating So Much Beef, Kansas is Running Out of Water
Kansas is running out of water and could see its aquifier depleted by 70 percent in just a few decades, according to a new study by researchers from Kansas State University. The state known as the nation’s breadbasket currently draws its water from the High Plains Ogallala Aquifer, which stretches from Texas to South Dakota. But the aquifer has already seen 30 percent of its groundwater pumped out.
All that water is being used to irrigate fields, too many of which, writes Tom Philpott in Mother Jones, are being planted with corn grown to fatten up cattle in the beef industry’s feedlots — which are, indeed, heavily concentrated in the very region where the High Plains Aquifer is located.
In their study, the researchers observe that Kansas’ 1st Congressional District has “the highest total market value of agriculture products” in the United States and generates the most farming income in the country. Those “agriculture products” are beef fed on corn, a notably “thirstier crop” than many others, says a New York Times article from earlier this year about the emptying of the High Plains Aquifer.
By drawing down on the region’s groundwater at more than six times the rate of natural recharge, farmers in western Kansas have vastly increased their crop yields in the past few decades. But if this keeps up, researchers estimate that another 39 percent of the aquifer will be gone within 50 years, even if farmers increase irrigation efficiency.
That doesn’t have to happen, the Kansas State researchers point out. If farmers cut water use by 20 percent now, corn and beef farming could be preserved into the next century. Farmers would face smaller profits: pumping 80 percent less groundwater would mean, say the researchers, that farmers would have to rear some 500,000 fewer cattle, a 12 percent decrease.
Corn is a Thirsty Crop
As backyard gardeners know, corn requires plenty of water and especially in hot weather, otherwise the plant’s leaves wilt as its roots cannot provide them with enough moisture. Not enough water can also mean ears of corn with many missing kernels.
Western Kansas has been pumping so much water in no small part because farmers have shifted to primarily growing corn, instead of a rotation of crops that also includes wheat and sorghum. Since 2002, Kansas farmers have increased the number of corn fields by a nearly a fifth.
The reason is economic. In the past decade, the price of corn has tripled due to “demand, speculation and a government mandate to produce biofuels.”
The Demand For Meat and Kansas’ Dry Fields
Part of that “demand” is the seemingly insatiable appetite for meat in the United States and around the world. While per capita meat consumption in the U.S. has been declining for the past four consecutive years, Americans still eat an average of 270.7 pounds of meat per person a year, making U.S. meat consumption almost the highest in the world; only Luxembourgers eat more (301.4 pounds per person a year). Overall, Americans are eating less beef, but more poultry and pork.
Around the globe, and especially in the developing world, meat consumption has been steadily increasing over the past few decades. Per person meat consumption in China is currently half that of the United States, but China’s total yearly meat consumption of 71 million tons is now double that of the United States and seems likely only to grow even more.
Currently, China bans U.S. beef imports out of fears about mad cow disease. The recent purchase of Smithfield Foods by a Chinese company suggests that this could change, especially given the country’s ever-growing demand for meat. Rather than draining a major aquifer just to produce beef for slaughter and consumption here and around the world, what about eating less meat?
There are alternatives to meat, but not to water.
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