Climaction: Milk and Water

Cows (or buffaloes) and people have a lot in common. We are both mammals, after all. This means we lactate to feed our children. Cows begin to breed when they are about 3 years old. Once pregnant, they give birth after 10 months. That's when the milk comes in. In many cases, the calf is taken away from its mother, and if male, either killed, abandoned or castrated. If female, the calf is kept to propagate her species. Typically, two months after giving birth, the cow is impregnated again, and the cycle continues for about 5 more years. At this point, the cow's milk yield falls too much to remain economical, so she is either abandoned or most often sold for slaughter. Lest you say "Goshala", these are few and far between and not a sustainable option for our 100 million plus adult female bovines.

There it is -- the unfortunate and often unacknowledged fact that beef is a corollary of milk.

Fast forward to the slaughter house, a 350 kg cow (or heavier buffalo) is washed, stunned and slaughtered. What happens next depends very much on the slaughtering context. In modern abattoirs, most of the animal is used, the blood, the organs, the hooves, the bones, the meat. In less modern context, most of the animal is wasted, yielding less than 160 kg of beef from the live cow. This is important. Because all of these wasted parts took fodder and water to grow. And disposing of the waste pollutes more water.

Why bring this up in the climate context? Because India is a hot and dry country where water is going to become scarcer in the future; Because agriculture uses more than 80% of India’s water consumption and; Because livestock are an important part of agriculture; And because making the world hotter by increasing greenhouse gases will hit India very hard.

A milch cow has a useful life of less than 8 years. All this time she is eating - either grazing on marginal land and/or being fed crop concentrates. Water is used in producing those crops (referred to as “virtual water” by scientists), or forests are/were cleared to produce that foraging space. A 1,000 litres of water are used to produce a kg of milk, 2,000 litres of water are used in producing one kg of soybeans while 15,000 litres water is used to produce a kg of beef. Most of the water used by grazing cows is “green” water or rain water used in production of crops or grass. But a substantial portion of water used to grow crops comes from “blue” water or surface and groundwater. This is water that is not easily replenished, especially the groundwater.

Cows also emit large quantities of Methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas, second only to carbon dioxide in its global heating potential. There is a type of bacteria that lives in the cow’s stomach that releases methane which then escapes when the cow burps. There is also the dung. That's a source of another greenhouse gas - this time Nitrous Oxide aka laughing gas - not quite in the same league as CO2 or methane, but pretty potent nevertheless. Globally, beef and dairy cattle contribute about seven per cent to the global greenhouse gas emissions directly (more if we were to account for transportation and forest clearing on their account). To put this in perspective, this is more than India’s total contribution to annual global greenhouse gas emissions.

We have added 45 million bovines in India in the past 10 years to a current total of more than 300 million cows and buffaloes. This is not the best thing for our climate.

Would we solve the water or climate problem by cutting down our domestic meat or milk consumption? Not quite. As per the latest USDA report, India has been steadily increasing its beef exports to become the No.1 exporter of beef in the world. We are essentially exporting large quantities of our “virtual water” that is essentially unpriced, until of course it runs out.

Also the livestock sector is an integral part of India - socially, culturally and economically. Livestock contributes 4.5% to the national GDP and provides useful income buffers for the most vulnerable members of our society - rural women and landless workers who supplement their meagre incomes and nutrition from the milk and meat income the cows/buffalos provide, especially in times of drought. Beef and leather exports provide valuable foreign exchange.

There are many things we can do: being thoughtful of our dairy consumption, providing farmers with other revenue streams or moving to more efficient (and humane) abattoirs.

But the first step is being aware of the link between milk, beef, water and the climate. Should we price water? One thing is clear - if we don’t price our water resources, when it eventually becomes much scarcer, all of us will pay.

Climaction is a fortnightly column that is published in MetroPlus Weekend on alternate Fridays. The views expressed in the articles are those of the author.

The next article in this series will appear on May 15.

Feedback and questions may be e-mailed to

(Mridula Ramesh is the Executive Director of Sundaram Textiles. She is also a student and teacher of global warming.)

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 8:12:50 AM |

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