As drought cripples us and bushfires consume us, it’s time to address the cow in the room.
As drought cripples us and bushfires consume us, it’s time to address the cow in the room.

Is our love of steak fuelling the drought crisis?

AS THE bushfires continue to rage across Australia claiming thousands of homes, millions of hectares of bushland, at least 32 human lives, and over 1 billion animals - our water stores are plummeting.

Sydney's dam levels currently sit at 43 per cent, prompting the state government to enforce level 2 water restrictions. It's not just Sydney feeling the pinch - Victorians are subject to Permanent Water Saving Rules, while South Australians observe Water Wise Measures.

So concerned are our leaders by the drought that they've declared war on feral animals whose thirst drives them into human-inhabited areas. Earlier this month, Indigenous leaders from the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands announced that around 10,000 feral camels in remote parts of South Australia would be the unfortunate targets of a mass cull simply because they, like so many animals, are desperately seeking water.

Around 10,000 feral camels are set to be culled in remote South Australia. Picture: Toby Zerna
Around 10,000 feral camels are set to be culled in remote South Australia. Picture: Toby Zerna

The idea of water restrictions, of course, is to curtail household use of this precious resource by limiting the times residents water plants and encouraging people to take shorter showers.

And as the repercussions of our nation's deadly dry spell pile up, there's no doubt we should be doing all we can to protect our water reserves. But since household use accounts for around only 12 per cent of Australia's water use, we need to look beyond residential restrictions.

Some believe that this is the wrong time to talk about climate change, but as New South Wales burns, we can't afford to not consider long-term solutions. More specifically, it's time to stop ignoring the mind-boggling amounts of water needed for animal agriculture.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics Water Use on Australian Farms figures, between 2017-18 in NSW alone, 482,566 megalitres of water were used to irrigate pastures for grazing farmed animals and to produce hay and silage for them. Less than half that amount - 223,123 megalitres - was used to cultivate fruit and vegetables for human consumption, and the average Aussie household consumes around 0.3 megalitres a year.

Australia’s love of beef is not helping the drought. Picture: supplied
Australia’s love of beef is not helping the drought. Picture: supplied

Australia's flesh-heavy diet has led us to make some very poor choices when it comes to our resources. A single cow raised for beef can drink up to 60 litres of water per day. Add to this the 1.4 million cows used for dairy, who each need up to 85 litres a day while lactating, and you're looking at as much as 1.6 billion litres of water.

It's true that little drops fill the bucket and that we should be mindful of the amount of water we use, but saving drops alone won't be enough to get us through the hot, dry summers that lie ahead.

Just as firefighters focus their attention on the most dangerous parts of a fire first, Australia must prioritise making sure that water-guzzling industries don't get a free pass when it comes to tightening the belt.

We must continue to lobby politicians and ensure Australia sets a course for a more sustainable future, mindful that as old industries decline, new ones emerge. After all, that's progress.

As drought cripples us and bushfires consume us, it's time to address the cow in the room.

Emily Rice is an outreach and partnerships manager for PETA.


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