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.

4 thoughts on “The Water Footprint and Waste of Beef

  1. The beginning of your article left me interested as well. I too had no idea how large beef’s footprint was. I think you’re right that there are healthier alternatives in regards to how beef is raised and those regulations should be thoroughly investigated. We as a society need to seriously start working on ways to reduce water usage while maintaining healthier diets to ensure longer healthier lives.

  2. I think an interesting point you bring up is the amount of food thrown away and how that contributes to the carbon footprint. I can only imagine how much food is wasted on our campus everyday. It is a shame to throw away untouched foods, but most shelters for donations have strict criteria about what can be donated. Although Union does have a compost option, it would be beneficial to find a way to be able to donate uneaten food on Unions campus

  3. My favorite part of your response here was when you put it into terms of how long of a shower that would be, when talking about how much water is used in the process of producing just one pound of beef. I found this especially important to read about because showers are something that not many people think about, but leads to an absurd amount of water waste.

  4. This post brought up some shocking numbers! It is scary to think that the Union College community is using 2,000 16 oz water bottles per day, and the impact this must have on our environment. One suggestion I have to reduce our water bottle consumption would be to make use of the filtered water dispensers on campus. Although a person may still be consuming the same amount of water, this will reduce the plastic waste that occurs from plastic bottled water through using reusable water bottles.

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