Have you ever wondered why beef has such a large water footprint?
It’s no secret that meat production requires a lot of resources, but the amount of water used to produce beef is staggering. In fact, it takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce just one pound of beef.
That’s a lot of water!
But why is raising livestock for meat so resource-intensive?
In this article, we’ll explore the different types of water used in the livestock production chain and why beef has such a large water footprint. We’ll also discuss ways to reduce your personal water footprint without giving up meat altogether.
So, let’s dive in and learn more about why it takes so much water to produce beef.
Why Does It Take So Much Water To Produce Beef?
There are primarily three types of water used in the livestock production chain: green, blue, and gray water. Green water is rainwater that lands on the field or pasture and requires no human intervention to use. Blue water is primarily irrigation water for crops and drinking water for animals. Gray water is water used for cleaning animal facilities, processing plants, and other similar purposes.
When we compare the water footprint of animal protein sources based on water type, it becomes clear that beef has a much larger water footprint than other types of meat. Over 90% of the water footprint for beef production is green water compared to 73% for pork and 79% for poultry. The blue and gray water footprint of beef is 158 gallons per pound compared to 146 gallons per pound for pork and 55 gallons per pound for poultry.
Regardless of the system in which the animals are raised, most of the water footprint of beef comes from how they’re fed, and more specifically, the water it took to grow their feed. While they may start out eating grass, in the United States, approximately 99 percent of all livestock spends some final portion of their life “finishing” in a feedlot or concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), where they eat mostly corn- and soy-based feed, along with forage like alfalfa.
Both systems have a very large green water footprint because both rely heavily on rainfall; pastureland grasses and most corn and soy crops are typically not irrigated. Industrial producers also get a portion of their feed from irrigated grains, which enlarge their blue water footprint. Pastureland systems occasionally require irrigation or provide irrigated supplemental feed. This, in turn, expands their blue water footprint.
Industrial beef has a sizable gray water footprint because of nutrient runoff (e.g., nitrogen, phosphorus) from fertilizers and pesticides applied to the corn and soy crops and contaminated runoff from mismanagement of cattle manure. Pasture-raised beef has smaller gray water footprints because there is little pollution from runoff of fertilizers and pesticides.
The Different Types Of Water Used In Livestock Production
In livestock production, there are three types of water used: green, blue, and gray water. Green water refers to rainwater that falls on pastures or fields and requires no human intervention to use. Blue water is primarily irrigation water for crops and drinking water for animals. Gray water is used for cleaning animal facilities, processing plants, and other similar purposes.
When it comes to the water footprint of animal protein sources, beef has a much larger water footprint than other types of meat. Over 90% of the water footprint for beef production is green water compared to 73% for pork and 79% for poultry. The blue and gray water footprint of beef is also significantly higher than other meats.
The majority of the water footprint of beef comes from how they’re fed, with most animals spending a portion of their life in a feedlot or concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), where they eat mostly corn- and soy-based feed. Both pasture-raised and industrial beef have a large green water footprint because they rely heavily on rainfall, but industrial producers also get a portion of their feed from irrigated grains, which enlarges their blue water footprint.
Industrial beef has a sizable gray water footprint because of nutrient runoff from fertilizers and pesticides applied to the corn and soy crops, as well as contaminated runoff from mismanagement of cattle manure. Pasture-raised beef has smaller gray water footprints because there is little pollution from runoff of fertilizers and pesticides. Overall, reducing meat intake, especially beef, can significantly reduce our overall water usage.
Water Use In Cattle Feed And Grazing
The amount of water used in cattle feed and grazing is a significant factor in the water footprint of beef production. A cow eats 25 pounds of feed to produce a single pound of edible beef, making it an inefficient and water-intensive source of human food. In drought-plagued California, feed production for animals consumes 34% of all irrigated water, and alfalfa alone consumes more water than any other crop in the state. Alfalfa and other water-intensive forage crops are often used to supplement the diets of grass-fed and dairy cattle.
Grazing cattle also take an enormous toll on U.S. water sources. The water footprint of grass-fed beef can be as much as 5 times greater than beef from cattle confined in feedlots. This is because grazing systems require more land to produce a given amount of beef, which results in more green water being used. Additionally, grazing systems can have negative impacts on soil health, which can lead to reduced water-holding capacity and increased runoff.
The type of feed used also plays a role in the water footprint of beef production. Feed conversion efficiency, feed composition, and feed origin all affect the amount of water used. Industrial systems are more efficient in terms of feed conversion, requiring 3.7 times less feed than grazing systems. However, industrial systems rely heavily on irrigated crops, which increases their blue water footprint.
In contrast, grazing systems rely primarily on green water but require more land to produce the same amount of beef. Pasture-raised beef has a smaller gray water footprint because there is little pollution from runoff of fertilizers and pesticides. However, pastureland systems occasionally require irrigation or provide irrigated supplemental feed, which can expand their blue water footprint.
Water Use In Slaughtering And Processing Beef
Water usage is also a significant factor in the slaughtering and processing of beef. The amount of water used in beef processing plants varies depending on the size and type of animal, processing level, conveyance means, processing water use, and cleanup and housekeeping procedures.
In beef slaughtering plants, flow rates of 350 gallons of water per animal have been reported. Water is used for chilling, scalding, can retorting, washing, cleaning, and waste conveying. The water used for processing accounts for 76 percent of the water use, with 13 percent used in cleanup and 12 percent used in downtime.
Water use for broiler processing typically ranges from 3.5 to 10 gallons per bird, while for turkeys, it ranges from 11 to 23 gallons per bird. All broiler processing plants are required to have a scalder overflow rate of 0.25 gallons per bird and a chiller overflow rate of 0.50 gallons per bird. In many instances, this water is used in the plant for the transport of feathers and offal from the processing area.
Beef processing water usage has been reported in the range of 150 to 450 gallons per animal processed. As a general rule, meat processors use about one gallon of water per pound of processed hamburger meat.
The amount of wastewater generated by beef processing plants can be decreased largely through changes in cleanup practices. Water use can be minimized by means of commercially available high-pressure, restricted flow hoses, which can be fit with automatic shutoffs to prevent water loss during inactivity. Many materials can be handled mechanically. For example, flour and other dry material can be vacuumed from the floor and augers and conveyors can be used to transport scrap meat and viscera.
Chiller and scalder water is reused in most poultry processing plants for flushing water to remove offal and feathers. Reconditioning of chiller overflow through the use of filtration and ultraviolet irradiation has been recommended. However, recycling is limited by the characteristics of the wastestream and by the potential for contamination of food products.
The Environmental Impact Of Beef Production On Water Resources
The production of beef has a significant impact on water resources, and this impact is primarily due to the amount of water required to grow feed for the animals. The use of blue water for irrigation in feed production can lead to environmental issues such as water depletion, salinization, and soil degradation. Additionally, the beef industry is the least efficient at using water compared to other types of meat production.
Researchers have developed a framework to understand water use in beef supply chains from production to consumption. Their model showed a disconnect between consumption and production counties, with more than 22 billion cubic meters of blue water transferred in 2017 alone. The inefficient usage of world resources is becoming a key issue in the assessment of sustainability, and the beef industry’s impact on virtual water flows is a significant concern.
Furthermore, there are three big environmental issues with the production of meat that affect water resources: feed sourcing, manure processing, and climate change. Raising meat takes vast quantities of feed, and millions of acres have been plowed over for large monoculture crop fields dedicated to feeding livestock. Converting natural habitats to agricultural fields releases carbon pollution, contributing to climate change. These crop fields are treated with toxic chemicals and doused in fertilizers, which can lead to excess runoff into surrounding waterways.
Manure from livestock is typically stored in open lagoons that are susceptible to overflow during flooding or leakage due to faults. This releases harmful substances like antibiotics, bacteria, pesticides, and heavy metals into the surrounding environment. As the manure decomposes it releases emissions including methane, ammonia, and carbon dioxide which further contribute to climate change.
Ways To Reduce Your Water Footprint While Still Eating Beef
If you’re not ready to give up beef entirely, there are still ways to reduce your water footprint while incorporating it into your diet. Here are a few tips:
1. Choose pasture-raised beef: While both conventional and pasture-raised beef use the same amount of water, their impact on water resources is different. Pasture-raised beef relies predominantly on rainfall, while industrially farmed animals typically consume irrigated corn, which draws on the earth’s limited surface and groundwater resources.
2. Eat less beef: Cutting back on your beef consumption can have a significant impact on your water footprint. Eating less meat through adopting a “healthy meat” diet could reduce water footprint by up to 35%. An even greater saving can be made if meat is replaced by fish, lowering water footprint by 55%, but interestingly moving completely to a vegetarian diet makes around the same savings.
3. Look for sustainable beef options: Some companies and farms are committed to sustainable practices that reduce their water usage and environmental impact. Look for labels like “grass-fed” or “certified organic” to find more sustainable options.
4. Reduce food waste: Wasting food not only wastes the water that went into producing it but all other resources involved as well. Plan your meals carefully, store food properly, and use up leftovers to reduce your overall food waste.
By making these small changes, you can still enjoy beef while reducing your water footprint and helping to conserve our precious water resources.