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   Jeff Nelson | VegSource Interactive, Inc.

How Much Water to
Make One Pound of Beef?

March 1, 2001 -- To date, probably the most reliable and widely-accepted water estimate to produce a pound of beef is the figure of 2,500 gallons/pound. Newsweek once put it another way: "the water that goes into a 1,000 pound steer would float a destroyer."

Not surprisingly, the beef industry promotes a study that determined, using highly suspect calculations, that only 441 gallons of water are required to produce a pound of beef.

(The cattlemen's study applied liberal deductions from water actually used, reasoning that water was evaporated at points during the process, or was "returned" to the water table after being used to grow plant feed, or was returned to the water table via urea and excrement from cows. Thus, study authors reasoned these waters were not "lost" but "recycled" and therefore could be subtracted from gross amount of water actually used in beef production. Of course, evaporation and cow dung don't go very far in replenishing water pumped from acquifers which took thousands of years to fill. It's interesting to consider that if the same fuzzy math were applied to calculating how much water it takes to grow vegetables, potatoes would probably only require about 2 gallons of water per pound.)

Bestselling author and vegetarian trailblazer John Robbins has examined in detail a variety of estimates and who worked on them, and some of his observations are in his new book Food Revolution (see here).

So what's the beef with beef, when it comes to water?

Simply put: it's wasteful and irresponsible to squander our precious resources on a luxury item like meat.

The only question we're left with is: just how wasteful and irresponsible is it?

Once again, our intrepid investigator, John Robbins, recently uncovered some startling new evidence. That evidence comes in the form of a scholarly new book which sheds new light on the subject. Edited by David Pimentel and others and published in January, the book is titled Ecological Integrity: Integrating Environment, Conservation and Health (Island Press, Washington DC, 2001).

Pimentel is a celebrated professor of ecology and agricultural science at Cornell University, who has published over 500 scientific articles, 20 books and overseen scores of important studies.

The other editors of the book are Laura Westra, professor of environmental studies at Sarah Lawrence College, and Reed Noss, president and chief scientist for Conservation Science, Inc., and president of the Society for Conservation Biology.

In this new book, Pimentel gives figures on the "Liters of water required to produce 1 kilogram of food."

One can, of course, easily translate liters/kilogram to gallons/pound, and his figures come out as follows:

(Note that the figures for producing a pound
of beef represent water which is used over a
2-plus year period, since food cattle are generally
slaughtered prior to 2-years-old, dairy cattle may
live 4 years before being turned into burgers,
and range cattle live to 5 or 6.)

As you can see from Professor Pimentel's figures, it takes roughly 200 times more water to make a pound of beef than a pound of potatoes.

Professor Pimentel explained of his calculations that:

the data we had indicated that a beef animal consumed 100 kg of hay and 4 kg of grain per 1 kg of beef produced. Using the basic rule that it takes about 1,000 liters of water to produce 1 kg of hay and grain, thus about 100,000 liters were required to produce the 1 kg of beef.

According to the USDA, one pound of ground lean beef has 1197.5 calories. The USDA lists one pound of potatoes as containing 288 calories.

To get roughly the same amount of calories from potatoes as you do from a pound of beef, you would need 4.15 pounds of potatoes.

So that's 249 gallons of water for 4.15 pounds potatoes versus 12,009 gallons for the pound of beef -- in order to get the same number of calories from the two foods. In short, it takes nearly 50 times more water to produce a calorie from beef as it does from potatoes.

The Aftermath of the Beef Habit?

Is this an efficient and fair way to feed the world?

Is it sustainable, even in light of the cash subsidies, super-low water prices, free or low-cost grazing on public lands, and the other enormous welfare handouts the meat industry receives from government, in order to keep the price of meat artificially low?

How, as a vegetarian, do you feel about paying astronomical water rates when your lifestyle choices mean you're likely consuming a fraction of the water each month that your meat-eating friends are guzzling each day?

Also see: Meat & Dairy: The Devastating Environmental Cost
(containing additional shocking statistics about water use for meat production
and when major US aquifer will be empty at present rate)