The Water Footprint and Waste of Beef

Did you know that it takes 1,799 gallons of water to produce just one pound of beef? That is the equivalent of taking 90 eight-minute showers, or staying in the shower for 12 hours. Personally, my jaw dropped when I read this article on beef’s water footprint. Beef has a much larger water footprint than almost any other crop or meat (Table 1). This is primarily due to the size and lifespan of cattle, and the amount of water it takes to produce their feed.

Beef 1,799 gallons of water
Lamb 1,250 gallons of water
Pork 576 gallons of water
Chicken 468 gallons of water
Tofu (soy) 303 gallons of water

(Table 1)

Though this might be an awakening ‘slap’ in the face to some, it does not mean that we shouldn’t eat any beef simply in the same of sustainability. Whether or not to cut out beef completely from ones’ diet is obviously a personal decision. There are, however, ways we can cut down the impact beef has on our water footprint. Some of which include choosing pasture-raised instead of factory farmed beef, or simply cutting down your own beef intake.

This leads us directly into water waste. Anytime beef is thrown away, this adds to our water waste. The almost 1,800 gallons of water it takes to produce a single pound of beef is completely wasted when it is not consumed. Taking a step back, I can recall a handful of times that I threw away 1 or 2 pounds of beef that had gone bad. Say each person throws away 4 lbs of beef per year, and that there are 7 billion people in the world. For every 1 lb of beef wasted there was also 1,799 gallons of water wasted. This would equate to 5 x 10^13 gallons of water waste from beef in one year. That is about 28 billion lbs of meat wasted and over 50 trillion gallons of water wasted in a single year.

Putting this into perspective I now understand that by throwing away a few pounds of beef has a huge impact on our water waste and footprint. Perhaps by producing less beef and using more sustainable techniques such as free range cattle rather than inhumane factory farmed beef, we can start to reduce our water waste and footprint exponentially.

Taking a look at Union College campus’s own water waste, we can assume that there are around 2,500 people on campus (including faculty and staff, as well as students). Lets say the average person consumes 31.8 gals of bottled water a year, that is .087 gals/day, multiplied by the total amount of people on campus is equal to 217.5 gals of bottled water consumed each day. Using the unit factor method 217.5 gals = 27,840 oz / 16 oz per bottle = 1,740 16oz bottles. With this solution, I would estimate the total bottled water consumption on the Union College Campus to be around 2,000 16 oz bottles a day.

Our Water and How We Use It

The article I chose is from the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, and it discusses how we use water in our every day lives. However, the most striking piece of information I received from the article comes in the first line when it mentions that less than 1% of the water on Earth is available for human consumption. The other 99% is found in salt water oceans, freshwater polar ice caps, or just too inaccessible for human use.  Water plays an enormous role in our everyday lives whether it be for human consumption, for livestock, or crops such as corn. The article also mentions that the average American family uses more than 300 gallons of water per day with about 70% of it used indoors.

I believe that we can make a significant difference in water usage indoors by limiting how much water we use in the showers. We could use a timer to minimize water usage in the shower so it’s not running idly which could save almost fifty gallons per day alone. Water is also used to manufacture our goods and even grow our food while maintaining livestock. Nearly half of the water used is for thermoelectric power and irrigation also requires a significant chunk of water power. 

Management of water has also become a growing concern over the past decade, and forty states have told the Government Accountability Office in a 2014 report that they expect to have water shortages over the next ten years that are unrelated to drought. These strains on water could resort in higher water prices, expensive water treatments, and increased summer watering restrictions. I believe that because of these water restrictions, water bottles are so popular since they are easily accessible. On average I can see the Union College community consuming over 5,000 bottles every day.