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water use pollution livestock diet

Causes: Producing feed for livestock and their manure. 

Foodprint - Water: Livestock is the largest sectoral user and polluter of water resources. Food accounts for 92% of our daily water consumption. Meat & dairy products are more than 10 time more water inefficient than plant based foods, yet use up 36% of global freshwater resources. 

Global water challenges

While 70% of the world's surface is covered by water, only a mere 2.5% of global water is fresh water (of which 70% is locked up in glaciers, permanent snow & ice and the atmosphere). This leaves a mere 0.75% of global water that is suitable for human activities1.

The water crisis is growing by the day. 1 in 7 people have inadequate access to water today, and water problems are associated with over 6.2 mn deaths per year. It is projected that by 2025, as much as two thirds of the world's population could be living under water stressed conditions. 

Impact of factory farming on global water resources

The livestock industry is extremely water intensive. As per the United Nations1

Livestock's usage of global freshwater resources

  • 45% of the freshwater used by the agricultural sector
  • 32% of global usable freshwater water resources (only for feedstock production)
  • 36% of global usable freshwater resources (including direct water consumption by animals)

Apart from being the largest user of our freshwater resources, the livestock industry is also the largest source of water pollution and depletion through

Livestock's pollution of freshwater resources

  • Animal waste discharge into water
  • Nitrogen and phosphorous discharge into water due to fertilizers used in feedstock production 
  • Other contaminants in water including bacteria, viruses, parasites and drug residues (from antibiotics and hormones used on animals)
  • Land conversions and soil erosion due to livestock activity

Virtual water / Water footprint

A study into the Water Footprint (source: of various products consumed in our daily lives, throw up some very interesting and unexpected results:

Water footprint of food products

  • Direct water consumption: 137 liters per day (i.e. water used for bathing, toilets, laundry, cooking & drinking and cleaning)
  • Indirect water consumption: 167 liters per day (i.e. water used in products that we consume such as clothing, appliances etc)
  • Water consumed for food: 3496 liters per day, accounting for 92% of total water used in our daily lives. 

While it is known that animal products have a significantly higher water footprint than plant based products, the actual extent of the difference is something which would surprise most people.The graph below provides a glimpse into the significant water savings consumers and societies can achieve, just by reducing consumption of meat & dairy products in favour of plant products.

Data source:

1 - UN FAO, Livestocks Long Shadow
2 - UN Department of Economic & Social Affairs - Water Scarcity
3 - UN Human Development Report 2006
4 - WHO - Safer Water, Better Health
5 - - Water & Development