Beef Has a Big Water Footprint. Here's Why

Water is in everything, yet this fundamental fact is often overlooked. It seems that water only surfaces in the public's attention when a drought kicks in or every March 22 for World Water Day or when water issues emerge in our social media streams.

While water is in everything, you'll find most of it in your food. In fact, your water footprint is overwhelmingly made up of the water it takes to produce food. Meat and animal products generally have much larger water footprints than fruits, vegetables or grains and beef is the "king" of the big water footprints, which I've written about in detail.

To see how the global average water footprints for different kinds of meat and proteins stack up, take a look at the chart below for the figures developed by the Water Footprint Network:

Water required to produce one pound (1 lb.) of:

Beef

1,799 gallons of water

Lamb

1,250 gallons of water

Pork

576 gallons of water

Chicken

468 gallons of water

Tofu (soy)

303 gallons of water

At an incredible 1,799 gallons of water per pound, the scale of beef's water footprint is giant; the equivalent of 90 eight-minute showers (see the main image above). It should be acknowledged that the comparison is generally useful even if each type of meat, per unit of weight, isn't the same in terms of calorie density, protein content, nutrient content and so forth. When looking through the lens of water, the most sustainable choice is pasture-raised beef that relies on feed produced using rainfall rather than irrigation

When looking through the lens of water, the most sustainable choice is pasture-raised beef that relies on feed produced using rainfall rather than irrigation.

Since beef is the second most popular meat in the United States, the enormous water requirements to produce it have outsize impacts. This matters because as population and prosperity grows in the US and around the world, the amount of water to available produce food - and beef in particular - remains the same.

According to the United Nations, if trends continue, water demand will surpass supply by 40 percent by the year 2030, significantly affecting the world's prime agricultural regions, like California and the US Great Plains. In essence, we need to produce more food with the same or even less water.

Beef's Big Water Footprint

There are a number of reasons why beef has such a big water footprint compared to other meats. What it comes down to is the huge amount of virtual water - or indirect water - that goes into the food that cattle eat. As with other animals raised for meat, the water needed to grow cattle feed is overwhelmingly the largest part of beef's water footprint.

Because cattle are so physically large they must eat huge quantities of feed, consisting mainly of forage and grain. To get beef cattle up to market weight takes a lot of feed and a long time; typically more than a year from calves to full-grown heifers or steers. The longer the time period necessary to get cattle to market weight, the more food cattle eat, and so the larger their water footprint. Another major factor involved in beef's big footprint is the inefficiency of cattle to convert food into meat, otherwise known as feed conversion ratio. Again, more feed means more water.

So due to cattle's large size, big appetite, long lifetime and metabolic inefficiency, beef has an huge water footprint compared to most other meats and food products. In other words, beef eats up a lot of water and other resources.

Eat Less Meat, Better Meat

Since meat - and especially beef - has such a big water footprint, does that mean shunning meat entirely for water conservation reasons? For some, vegetarianism might be an option, but you don't have to go completely cold turkey on beef. What's another strategy? Try less meat, but better meat. This can reduce your overall meat consumption while focusing on more sustainable, humanely-raised meat, because not all meat is the same.

What does less meat, better meat mean in practice? For starters, limiting the amount of meat eaten is straightforward. That could mean trying Meatless Monday, eating smaller portions of meat or simply avoiding sausage on your breakfast sandwich. There are many ways to go and flexibility is key.

When it comes to sustainable meat options, there are also choices. Pasture-raised animals on well-managed farms are what to look for because they subsist primarily on what they forage in the pasture. For beef, as with most other meat animals, it takes longer to get them to market weight but they aren't confined in poor conditions, but rather raised in more natural settings.

The forage they eat depends predominately on rain instead of irrigation water that could go towards other uses. Also, factory farms, which provide the vast majority of US meat, are heavy polluters with giant manure lagoons that can leak into water and groundwater. Moreover, water is just one factor among others to consider when choosing pasture-raised over factory farmed meat, including air pollution, nutrient pollution, healthiness of the meat and animal welfare, to name a few.

Beef certainly has a big water footprint but that's not the end of the story. There are many ways to be aware, eat smart and shrink your water footprint.