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Kate Zerrenner headshot

Why Water Could Cancel Your Burger Order Before Climate Change Does

The beef industry is at a tipping point due to climate change in Texas, and increasing water stress is only exacerbating the problem.
By Kate Zerrenner
Climate Change

The latest IPCC report says one of the ways humans can help slow the march of climate change is by changing the way we eat, notably by reducing our consumption of meat. Beef production, in particular, is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, globally, livestock are responsible for 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and of that, 65 percent come from beef production. The United States comes in fourth in beef consumption worldwide, so there is plenty of room for reduction. 

From an emissions standpoint, reducing beef consumption makes a lot of sense. But what does that mean for the ranchers producing that beef and the workers who process it? While ranchers in some countries responded to the findings with evidence of how they are addressing emissions, Texas ranchers have sung a different tune, pushing back on the findings. That matters because the U.S. is the largest beef producer in the world, and Texas has more cattle than any other state; 13 percent of American cattle live there. This also matters because, as a state, Texas has its head in the sand about climate change, even though its effects are already apparent. One major effect of climate change in Texas: Increasing water stress.

The challenge: Scoring ranchers' buy-in on climate change

Beef is a very water-intensive industry. It takes about 1,800 gallons of water to product one pound of beef. Texas has always been a boom-and-bust state when it comes to water, but the last 10 years have been particularly tough. The multi-year drought that lasted from 2010 to 2015 was the second worst in state history, nipping at the heels of the drought of record in the 1950s. The drought was broken by three years of catastrophic flooding, culminating in the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. Within a few months after the hurricane, the state was facing drought again. The cycles are getting shorter and more intense. The Lone Star State is yet again in the midst of drought, with some of the most intense spots in the prominent cattle ranching areas of west and north Texas.

2011 was the hottest, driest year of that multi-year drought, and it forced many multi-generational cattle ranchers to sell their cattle. The state saw major economic losses, including the closure of major processing plants by companies like Cargill, one of the top companies in the industry. It took an emotional toll as well as an economic one. And in 2018, ranchers were back in a similar spot, facing losses as the water ran dry.

The clock is ticking as the beef industry has little time to adapt

Ranchers have to rely on nature for their livelihood, and they have seen the changes in the climate. Coming to terms with what that means if the new normal is severely reduced water and food stocks could be a bitter pill to swallow. With external pressure to reduce meat consumption coupled with internal pressure of the rising costs, both economic and environmental, of raising cattle, the industry could reach a breaking point before much longer.

Some ranchers see an opportunity to be more innovative in exploring new water technologies, while some may opt to leave the business altogether if they continue to suffer losses year after year. It’s hard to imagine Texans, much less most Americans, giving up their brisket or burgers any time soon, but if the rains don’t come, hard decisions will have to be made by consumers and producers alike. The iconic Texas Longhorn may become a nostalgic symbol of the way life and the meat industry both used to be.

Image credit: Donald Giannatti/Unsplash

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner