Food for Thought: Does Beef Waste Water?
I'm going to be honest, researching the role that water plays when it comes to beef production definitely had me scratching my head and admittedly pulling my hair out on more than one occasion. You'll soon see why.
It's often said in studies that it takes 1,800 gallons to make one pound of ground beef, as claimed here by Water Footprint Calculator, for example. They also compare beef to some other foods, including 1 pound of pork (718 gallons of water), chicken (468 gallons), soybeans (206 gallons), wheat (138 gallons), and corn (108 gallons). I think it's also worth noting here that when it comes to big numbers, they did not include almonds, of which 1 pound takes around 1,900 gallons of water.
In any case, before diving into what the WFC was proposing in depth I wanted to consider things from my point of view since we raise cattle (and I have a pretty good idea of some of the numbers) to see if I could get the numbers to "add up" so to speak. I started by accounting for the cattle drinking water, but doing that only got me to 36 gallons of water per pound of beef, which isn't even close to the 1,800 that's being reported.
So where does the remaining 1750+ gallons come from? I inferred that it must be coming from cattle feed - grass and grain. But that still didn’t make sense to me. As we know from part three of our Food for Thought series, cattle spend most of their lives on pasture, and at least half the year grazing. It rains, the grass grows, and the cattle eat.
An important distinction to make here: Rain here is considered to be "green water" in that it goes straight to the soil and therefore directly to the plants that the cattle eat. Cattle feed can also of course come from irrigated crops, like hay and grain, particularly during the feedlot stage of beef production, and those are grown using “blue water,” aka water that comes from sources such as irrigation, ground water, lakes, streams, etc. that have to be tapped into and then applied to the soil.
I figured that the blue water must be where the extra water in beef’s footprint is coming from. While all water conservation is important, generally blue water is of particular concern since it has to be extracted, and if beef uses a lot of blue water, I can see why people would be upset.
But I quickly realized after reading the WFC study in depth that there's more ~nuance~ to the story than what might be immediately obvious.
In actuality, there is not a clear consensus around this 1,800 gallons of water per 1 pound of beef ratio. A range of studies have come up with a range of estimates, and in fact they include a table with wildly varying numbers of gallons right there in the study (see below).
They say they have chosen the 1,800 gallon number to use, because this seems to be the most accurate global average between the more extreme values presented. The other sources cited in this study are also discredited for various reasons. For example, in the case of the findings from UC Davis, in which it was determined that it takes 441 gallons of water per pound of beef, the WFC argue that it should be thrown out as viable because it only applies to the US and was done at the behest of a beef organization and therefore biased. At the very end of the study the WFC make a distinct point to mention that “the actual number is not what’s important. The bottom line is that it takes a lot of water to produce beef.”
But I think that the actual number is important.
They link to the study that they prefer, which I poured over, and you can too. But if you flip to pages 26 and 27 you'll see a very important quote and a table to go along with it. I've copy/pasted them here for you to see:
“Table 5 shows in detail the components of water footprint of producing a kilogram of beef. The water footprint is dominantly green water (94%).”
Yes, you read that right. 94% green water. As in rain, like we talked about earlier. Rain, naturally falling on pasture and native grasslands. Rain that grows grass, that cows eat, unconfined, while sharing that pasture with birds, and wildlife on intact, biodiverse, carbon storing soil. I found it incredibly frustrating to wrap my head around the fact that so many people were up in arms over rain. I wanted to dig deeper. So hang tight, because now we're going to do just that.
So let's address that 1,800 gallon number again. It's based on an average global processing age of a 3 year old steer, but it's not reflective of what's happening here in the US. In the US, it's important to note that we process beef cattle around 2 years of age or younger, and that fact alone would shrink our estimated water footprint to around 1,200 gallons of water per pound of beef, and again, 94% of that would still be green water, aka rain.
So that leaves around 6% as blue water; as a reminder, this is the water that comes from lakes, streams, groundwater, and freshwater. 5% of the blue water is used to grow cattle feed (particularly grain) under irrigation. The remaining 1% accounts for drinking water + processing which is pretty minimal.
Now, this same study acknowledges that any blue water used by pasture based beef systems is negligible, which you can see if you scroll up and look again at table 5. This is a feedlot thing, which, remember, is where the last third of a steer’s life is spent before harvest in the US. You can familiarize yourself with the different stages of the beef production system in part three of this series.
I have to say - if this 6% blue water usage is a big deal to you, it’s not an insurmountable issue. For example, purchasing only pasture raised beef essentially eliminates it as a concern. But if we're going to take issue with irrigation, I think we need to be consistent and consider with a critical eye in regards to other food sources it's used in conjunction with.
Look at table 6 in that same study referenced by the WFC. You can see that beef has a relatively low percentage of blue water use when you compare it to all these other foods:
Looking at this table you might be inclined to think that we need to be using our blue water more efficiently. For what it’s worth though, total irrigation in the US has been going down as irrigated acres have leveled out, as illustrated in this chart from the USDA.
Comparing water use across different foods is tricky; it’s like comparing apples to oranges, or rather, flora to fauna. But for the sake of this discussion, you can see in this chart from the WFC, which as a reminder is using the inflated global averages, still has to admit that when you weigh water use across different metrics such as per gram of protein, beef stacks up better than nuts!
We can reference table after table, chart after chart, but here’s what I really want to say. I am interested in water conservation, deeply so. It’s one of the reasons I’m obsessed with ruminants - their grazing encourages plant and root growth which actually increases soil’s water holding capacity and decreases erosion through managed grazing (see part one of Food for Thought). Even if we didn’t sell meat, I would still want ruminants around to benefit the land. The arguments so often had against beef because of its supposed overuse of water, especially as compared to pork and chicken which use less total water - but a much higher blue water percentage while being raised entirely in confinement and fed that same irrigated grain - I just don’t follow that logic.
Obviously there's so much more to say here and much more nuance to uncover but for now I'll leave you with this. Stay tuned for more Food for Thought soon.