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Study reveals beef, dairy production depleting water supply

12 March 2020

US - A study by Northern Arizona University has set out to assess river flow depletion across the US, identify the factors driving this depletion and evaluate options to reduce vulnerability to water shortages. The researchers estimate that two-thirds of the cattle feed being irrigated from western US rivers ends up as beef products, with the remainder going to dairy products.

"The groundbreaking maps produced by FEWSION made it possible to link river depletion through the supply chain to irrigated alfalfa and hay and to beef and dairy production, then to urban consumers of beef and dairy in each city and county in the US," co-author and principal investigator Ben Ruddell said. Mr Ruddell is the leader of the FEWSION project - a multi-institutional team effort launched in 2016 and funded through the National Science Foundation (NSF).

According to the study, published this week in Nature Sustainability, the team’s findings "led to closer examination of the water use and ecological impacts associated with irrigation of cattle-feed crops. We pinpointed locations where these crops were being grown and modeled their associated depletion of river flow in local sub-watersheds.

"We then conducted an international supply-chain analysis to identify the locations where cattle-feed crops are transported and where the resulting beef products are consumed, thereby specifically linking end consumers of beef to effects on rivers. We subsequently explored the benefits and consequences of reduced feed-crop production and beef consumption through the lenses of water security, river ecosystem health, food security and agricultural economies."

"We’re using a lot of water to grow the cows that are the source of our burgers, steaks and milk," Mr Ruddell said. "In the Colorado River basin, that cattle feed water use is nearly three times greater than all the water used for urban, industrial and electrical power purposes combined."

Along with the study’s lead author and FEWSION contributor Brian Richter, Mr Ruddell was surprised by some of their findings.

"I can hardly believe that such a large fraction of our western water problems is linked to irrigation of cattle feed, or that such a large fraction of our western water problems could be fixed with a single prescription—fallowing. It’s rare that science clearly finds a ‘silver bullet’ that solves such a big problem so well, and so affordably," Mr Ruddell said.

"Although the idea for this study of the US food energy and water system was proposed as part of the FEWSION project, the roots of the ideas go back decades and involve many of the pioneers of river science and environmental sustainability—including Brian Richter, who is one of the founders of the science of river management for environmental flow," Mr Ruddell said.

"It takes a long time, generous research funding and a broad team with diverse interdisciplinary skills for synthetic ideas like this to become a reality."

TheCattleSite News Desk

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