When discussing the “price” of milk it’s easy to overlook an important component – instead of the numbers on a shopping receipt, it’s the cost in terms of water that the public needs to become far more aware of. When all the different requirements are tallied, it becomes clear that a litre of milk requires a disproportionately large amount of water to produce. This is the true cost to us as a society, one that is slowly but steadily degrading our environment and wasting our natural resources.
In New Zealand the dairy industry’s demand for water is immense, making it the number one consumer of all water in the country – accounting for 44% of all consumptive use1. The majority of this takes place in Canterbury, where even more water than needed is allocated to farmers as a safety net during dry seasons. Irrigation is the largest and most wasteful use for farm water, and while the exact amount depends on the local conditions there’s always a significant portion that simply drains away as it is conducted from the source to the field.
This water gained from rivers and aquifers is termed “blue water”, and natural rainfall is called “green water”. However there is a third type of water known as “grey water” that indicates another worrying practice involved with dairy farming – the dumping of effluent back into the environment. A certain amount of water is required to dilute the effluent down to a reasonable standard, but even then the water is contaminated from that point on. Combining these three water sources produces the total amount of water required to produce one litre of milk, and the best global estimate is a staggering 1,020 litres2.
New Zealand has built it’s dairy industry on the systematic waste of millions of litres of water and returns it to the environment in a polluted form. This is not sustainable long term, and it is not aligned with the clean, green New Zealand image that we want to convey internationally. To make matters worse, the New Zealand dairy industry is keen to double its production by 20203.
The water waste issue is not just milk either – almost all animal products require a huge amount of water to produce. To produce one kilogram of beef requires a shocking 15,000 litres of water. Pig meat and butter both require 5,500-6,000 litres, and even eggs take a hefty 3,000 litres per kilogram. By comparison, vegetables require just 322 litres4.
As the demand for fresh water grows, it is likely that consumer demand will simply marginalise further those who cannot afford it rather than alter practices. It is essential to be vocal about the true cost of water and to not let the meat and dairy industries run amok.
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