Is beef a water hog or a smoke screen?
Headlines claim beef production uses an excessive amount of water but fail to distinguish the different types of water, which misleads us from even bigger water impacts elsewhere in agriculture.
You’ve probably seen the misleading infographic from Meatless Monday, claiming that it takes ten full bathtubs of water to make a quarter-pound burger.
But when we examine the methodology of these claims closer, we discover that 94% of the water “used” to make typical beef and 97% of the water “used” to make grass-finished beef is naturally occurring rainfall - water that would have fallen regardless of the cows’ presence on the grass!
The amount of water cows need to drink is a tiny percentage of the calculation.
When we’re examining water usage, it’s essential to differentiate between the types of water being measured: green water, blue water, and grey water.
Green water is the naturally occurring rainfall that is temporarily stored in the topsoil. It does not runoff into other waterways, nor does it penetrate the soil deep enough to reach the groundwater.
Blue water is fresh surface or groundwater that’s found in freshwater lakes, rivers, and aquifers.
Grey water is freshwater that has been used in some way and is calculated as the volume of water that is required to dilute pollutants to a level that keeps the quality of water above water quality standards.
The type of water measured can drastically affect whether it seems to be a water hog or not.
With typical cattle production, the amount of green water used is about 94% of the total water input, meaning that the majority of the water (aka those bathtubs) that is used for beef would’ve fallen on the pasture anyway.
Beef production is able to draw most of its water needs from rainfall because the beef production system begins with a cow-calf operation where herds of cows are raised on pasture and bred to have a calf once a year. Cattle only spend on average the last five months of their lives in a feedlot.
This is vastly different from chicken and pork production, which occurs almost entirely inside large-scale confinement houses.
In a grass-finished beef operation, the amount of green water used is 97% because the cattle are raised exclusively on pasture.
According to a recent LCA study, It takes less than 280 gallons of "blue" (irrigation) water to produce a pound of beef (and as low as 50-100 gallons per pound of grass-finished beef). How do these numbers stack up to other staples often marketed as the most “sustainable” food choice?
It takes about 410 gallons of blue water to produce a pound of rice, avocados, walnuts, or sugar. Consider the nutrient density of each of these foods: NONE can compete with the vitamins and minerals found in grass-fed beef.
Beef-related water calculations also commonly include water used to produce the grain fed to cattle. Livestock feed often requires irrigation, which is considered blue water. But as I touched on in this edition a few weeks ago, many people don’t realize that typical cattle actually consume a very small % of grain. Only 4% of the 280 gallons required to produce a pound of typical beef is blue water, however. For grass-finished beef, it drops to 3%.
Cattle damning infographics also fail to convey the importance of well-managed livestock for improving the soil’s water holding capacity.
Adaptive, regenerative practices also provide pastures with rest periods that allow green water to soak into the soil like a sponge and enhance the pasture's plant regrowth. This benefit is especially important in dry environments where rainfall is scarce. Imagine pouring water onto a concrete sidewalk. Rain falling on hard, compacted land without any pasture coverage just runs off into nearby waterways, taking with it any potential topsoil and often chemical fertilizers.
Well-managed cattle can not only restore this land, improving its soil health and water holding capacity, but about 30% of the water that these cows do consume is returned directly to the ecosystem through urine and manure, adding beneficial nutrients and microbes to grasslands.
Scapegoating beef’s water usage is beginning to look less like reductionist marketing and more like a red herring for water usage elsewhere in agriculture.
Our food system’s dependence on monocropping is the greatest impact to our water supply.
Crop irrigation requires roughly 70% of the world’s blue water and is largely ignored in sustainability conversations. Globally, 30% of groundwater intended for crops is used for rice. Add wheat (12%), cotton (11%), and soybeans (3%) to account for over 50% of the groundwater used for these water- (and chemical) intensive crops.
Runoff from irrigated crops carries fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, and other dangerous chemicals into local watersheds resulting in devastating consequences to water quality and wildlife. Because of runoff from cropland in the Midwest along the Mississippi, a dead zone the size of Connecticut in the Gulf of Mexico has caused a burst of algae growth that consumes water oxygen, making it uninhabitable for other aquatic plants and life.
When discussing water inputs, it’s also critical to consider where foods are grown. In simpler words, does it make sense to grow this food in this region?
For example, California agriculture uses 80% of the available water yet only contributes 2% of the state’s revenue. The blue and grey water (remember: the water that isn’t natural rainfall) for nut production far exceeds the blue and grey water for typical beef, yet we’re still continuing to pump water at rates faster than it can naturally be replenished and many of our major rivers, such as the Colorado and Yellow, no longer reach the ocean. Considering the impact on fish and other species that rely on these rivers for habitat, perhaps the almond milk of “least harm” isn’t the best choice after all.
People are more concerned than ever about the impact of their food choices on the planet - this is a good thing. It’s worth asking questions.
But it’s also worth asking questions of the “answers” we frequently see in the headlines.
“Beef is a water hog,” they claim. Compared to what? And if removed from our diets, what would replace it? Would it be better?
How much water, nutrition, and ecosystem benefits are attributed to almond flour cookies or ultra-processed, fake meat alternatives? Non-meat options are not inherently better than meat-inclusive ones.
The truth is beef raised on pasture, holistically managed not only provides nutrient-dense protein, but also improves soil health, water holding capacity, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and overall sustainability.
What other mainstream narratives about beef production do you question?
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