Beef: The “King” of the Big Water Footprints

Beef: The “King” of the Big Water Footprints

Prince King Charles ensured that the Water Footprint of Beef was a big topic of discussion at the Future of Food conference in May 2011.

King Charles (then Prince of Wales) issued a stern warning at the Future of Food conference way back in May 2011 – and in the process stirred up a long simmering debate among Americans – one that resonated with me because of its virtual water conservation message: Beef production and consumption are water intensive and a drain on our world water supplies.

According to the King:

In a country like the United States, a fifth of all our grain production is dependent upon irrigation. For every pound of beef produced in the industrial system, it takes two thousand gallons of water. That is a lot of water and there is plenty of evidence that the Earth cannot keep up with the demand.

While it’s a well-established fact that meat production requires more water than fruits, vegetables or grains, an average water footprint of 2,000 gallons per pound of beef (we now generally use 1,850 gallons per pound) is enormous. You might be wondering how the numbers compare so we turned to The Water Footprint of Food Guide to find out.

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

  • Pork = 720 gallons of water
  • Chicken = 520 gallons of water
  • Soybeans = 256 gallons of water
  • Wheat = 220 gallons of water
  • Corn = 148 gallons of water

Compared to almost any other agricultural product (ounce for ounce, the water footprints of chocolate and almonds are bigger), the water footprint of beef is orders of magnitude greater. Beef is truly the “king” of big water footprints.

Given all the controversy over the number, you might wonder how the 1,850 gallons of water figure that we use came about?

Since the water (and resource) requirements for beef can be so enormous, it makes sense that people want to get to the bottom of the debate. This decades-long cold war of sorts in the agricultural and natural resource arenas has pitted Big Ag supporters against sustainable farmers and environmentalists, and various academics against one another, each armed with their own numbers and studies. With the addition of big money from big industry, we’ve ended up with quite the grudge match over America’s second favorite meat.

To get an idea of the wide range of numbers presented as the true water footprint of beef, see the partial list below:

Table 1. Water required to produce one pound (1 lb.) of boneless, conventionally raised beef

Gallons of WaterSource (individual or organization)
441Jim Oltjen et al. 1993. “Estimation of the water requirement for beef production in the United States.” Journal of Animal Science. (UC-Davis professor at the behest of National Cattlemen’s Beef Association)
840Alan Durning. 1991. “Taking Stock: Animal Farming and the Environment.” Worldwatch Paper #103. (Calculations based on Oltjen’s figures.)
1,799Mekonnen and Hoekstra. 2010. “The green, blue and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products.” Water Footprint Network.
2,464Marcia Kreith. 1991. “Water inputs in California food production.” Water Education Foundation.
5,214Herb Schulbach et al. 1978. Soil and Water. no. 38, fall 1978.
12,008David Pimentel. 2001. “Environmental Sustainability and Integrity in the Agriculture Sector.” Ecological Integrity: Integrating Environment, Conservation and Health.

Compounding the difficulty of the many players weighing in with their statistics, some from peer-reviewed studies and others not, is the practical problem of tracking down the original study sources from the perpetual thread of Internet copying and pasting. I’m not the first to comment on this.

Why can’t a consensus around a definitive statistic for the average water footprint of beef be reached? The problem rests on two fundamental issues: 1) A significant difference in research methods; and 2) The many variables and differences involved in raising and producing beef (this is true whether they are produced within the conventional, organic or grass-fed systems). My focus here is on conventional, or industrial, beef production, since the vast majority of beef consumed in the US comes from industrial production.

Water Footprint Research Methodology

The water footprint concept was developed in 2003, whereas most of these studies were conducted before then. The conceptual framework that includes such components as virtual water and blue, green and grey water footprints, wasn’t available. Consequently, researchers had to devise their own methods. Because there was no water footprint framework, there was no standard methodology for accounting, a process that is ongoing.

Beef Production Methods

Given the many steps and variables involved in raising and feeding beef, this is the major impediment to finding a definitive water footprint number. Conventional beef production takes roughly the same path from calf to plate, presented here as a simplistic overview of the three-part conventional beef cattle production process:

  1. Calves are weaned at around 6-10 months.
  2. They are then brought to pasture or rangeland to feed on grasses and other “forage” (whole plants from pasture) until around 12-16 months.
  3. Conventional beef cattle then enter a feedlot and are fed a grain-based diet consisting of a mix of corn and soy and occasionally wheat and/or barley, until they are around 18-22 months or approximately 1,200-1,400 pounds.

Industrial livestock production is also known to have significant adverse impacts on water quality.  Unfortunately, this damage is not factored into any water footprint analysis model for animal production; this omission remains a serious hindrance to the creation of a truly comprehensive life cycle analysis.

By far, the largest component of beef’s water footprint is the huge volume of virtual water consumed by cattle through their feed, in this case both forage and grain. There are three primary factors associated with feeding practices and techniques that contribute to the water footprint calculation:

  • Since beef cattle eat such massive quantities of feed and are quite inefficient in converting that feed to meat (relative to a chicken or pig, for instance) it raises the water footprint. More feed = more water.
  • The type of feed consumed contains more or less water because grains contain much more water than “roughage” or forage. Also, the more energy concentrated in the food (corn kernel vs. corn husk), the more water that’s embedded in the feed.
  • Grain grown in more arid locales like the Western United States depend more on irrigated fields compared to wetter regions like the Great Lakes and Eastern states. Cattle feed produced from regions that have higher precipitation levels relies less on irrigation and, therefore, has a lower water footprint. Similarly, in regions where cattle feed crops are locally produced, there is a lower water footprint because there is a lower virtual water content associated with transportation fuels used to import feed.

When all the variables are accounted for, it makes sense that arriving at an average water footprint of beef has been so daunting. Any change in beef production practices, such as shortening or lengthening the duration of each stage or changing the feed inputs or intensity, can significantly alter the volume of water used for that beef product. Therefore, any single figure based on an average can be scrutinized and questioned when held up to a specific beef production facility.

Industrial livestock production is also known to have significant adverse impacts on water quality.  Unfortunately, this damage is not factored into any water footprint analysis model for animal production; this omission remains a serious hindrance to the creation of a truly comprehensive life cycle analysis.

So the question remains: Is there one figure that seems most accurate and useful? 

I lean towards the Water Footprint Network’s (WFN) figure of 1,850 gallons of water per pound of beef for two reasons. First, they have created and standardized the rigorous methods behind water footprinting. Second, they use large, global data sets that incorporate many beef production systems from numerous countries. (Also, in the interest of statistics, it’s reasonable to discard the two extremes within the range [the outliers]—12,008 and 441.)

The bottom line is that it takes a lot of water to produce beef, especially when just a fraction of that water can be used to produce much more food with much lower water footprints.

Regarding the Royal figure of  2,000-gallons – it appears to be fairly close to the WFN’s mark. And to the larger point of beef’s stampede for resources – water, energy, grain – it couldn’t be more correct: Eating the amount of beef that Americans do, at over 60 pounds annually, is exhausting our resources and is unsustainable, especially when growing consumption patterns around the world are taken into account.

In the end, the actual number is not what’s important. The bottom line is that it takes a lot of water to produce beef, especially when just a fraction of that water can be used to feed more people. Instead of simply accepting that beef consumption will soar and hold the world’s over-stressed freshwater resources for a king’s ransom, a meal with little or no beef is a meal fit for anyone, even the King.

By Kai Olson-Sawyer.

Slightly revised version of the post, originally published on GRACE’s former blog Ecocentric, on 08.01.2011. Updated 12.22.2022.

Main Image: The Water Footprint of Beef: To produce one pound (1 lb.) of steak requires, on average, 1,799 gallons of water. Graphic created by GRACE staff.