U.S Consumption of Beef

Since posting last week about the water footprint of beef, I have not been able to get it off my mind. I took this week’s post as an opportunity to go a bit more in depth about the consumption of beef in the United States. An article I found discusses the shift of Americans from beef toward chicken consumption.

The graph shown below displays the peak of beef consumption in America during the 1970s, through the current decline of beef consumption per capita. During this 17 percent decline of beef consumption, greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 10%. As we can see, pork and poultry consumption have relatively stayed the same throughout this period of time. Though this means more chickens are being eaten, reducing the amount of beef consumed proves crucial to reducing our carbon and water footprint.

The article goes on to explain that the production of beef emits seven times the amount of greenhouse gases than chicken. Further, the carbon and water footprint of beef is roughly 20 times that of plant-based foods like beans.

The next graph shows that the production of chicken has increased by 5 times, while beef production has stayed consistent. This is partly due to the high demand for cheaper meats like ready to cook chicken. Beef takes longer to cook, making chicken an easier everyday option for most Americans.

Lastly, we should touch on America’s dietary footprint. Though we have decreased our consumption, beef still accounts for almost half of our dietary footprint. The final graph shows that American consumption of beef is not only one of the highest in the world, but actually four times the world average.

These trends all point to one thing: reducing our production and intake of beef will substantially decrease our carbon footprint within a single generation.

Eat More Chicken

While doing research for this post, I found some pretty unsettling statistics. It’s well known that water plays a massive role in everything we do, and there is no denying its importance. It’s not necessarily something we take for granted, but most of us tend to forget just how much water we actually use on an extremely regular basis.

So here’s one of those troubling numbers: it takes approximately 1,800 gallons of water to produce just one pound of beef. This number – beef’s water footprint – is astounding. For comparison’s sake, the amount of water used to produce one pound of beef is equivalent to that of 90 eight-minute showers. These numbers are scary, but the logic behind them makes sense. Beef’s water footprint is so large because the methods of converting cattle to market meat are vastly inefficient, and the amount of time it takes for cattle to metabolize their food is expansive. This is the feed conversion ratio, and it is directly correlated to the amount of water needed to produce beef. The bigger the feed, the bigger the footprint.

There are certainly methods to taming this issue, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a concrete and terminal solution. We don’t need to cut meat out of our diets entirely. Instead, we can choose to eat beef in smaller portions, or even substitute it with chicken (already a healthier option). Chicken’s water footprint is 468 gallons – not perfect, but undoubtedly a huge improvement. Whatever your method may be, make sure to consider these numbers when eating meat.

Changing the Course of Water Sustainability

Sustainability efforts continue to rise as awareness of the ecosystem’s demise becomes more of a global priority. Due to the increasing efforts, the need to identify the most effective plans of attack is also increasing. In terms of water sustainability, Will Sarni has identified three ways the course of water sustainability changed in 2017.

One of the most notable changes is the increasing efforts to more efficient tracking of water data. New public policies, like California’s “Open and Transparent Water Data Act,” require a statewide platform that combines various databases in order to provide the public with the most comprehensive water and ecological platform possible. The collaborative database highlights numerous issues, like water scarcity and climate change, that otherwise may go unnoticed. Other technological advances include more powerful sensors that track water quality, water usage, asset management, and water utility economics. The new technology can also provide a more accurate set of predictive analytics, keeping the public as updated as possible.

Although we are heading in a positive direction, certain large corporations continue to be huge contributors to the negative water usage. In an investigation by Christine MacDonald, Coca-Cola is identified as a huge source of false advertisement talking about its own sustainability efforts.

The company promised in an advertisement in The New York Times that “For every drop we use, we give one back.” Coca-Cola conducted a self assessment of their product which revealed that it took 35 Liters of water to make every half liter of Coke. The company promised in 2007 that its goal was to sustainably source 100% of key agricultural ingredients, but the follow through on this promise has been seriously lacking.

Coca-Cola isn’t the only offender of over using water. MacDonald reported that it takes 712 gallons of water to produce a single t-shirt and 462 gallons to produce a quarter-pound hamburger. People don’t realize how much water it takes even to produce the simplest of things. In the United States alone, the per capita Water Footprint is 2,060 gallons a day.


The Water Footprint of Alfalfa and Meat

Agriculture accounts for 80% of water consumption in California. This mainly accounts for the growing of the plant Alfalfa. Alfalfa is a plant grown to feed livestock. Beef consists of a large portion of the American diet. In order to feed these animals the production of Alfalfa is increased significantly due to the increase in demand for a beef hungry diet. Beef has a water footprint of 4 million gallons per ton produced. This is far more than any other crop.

Additionally, the way that meat is being produced today is different than it was decades ago. Because the meat is not being handled the same way, when it does not reach standards of the FDA this also means that water is wasted. According to a New York Times article, when 8.7 million pounds of beef are wasted that is roughly equivalent to 631.6 million gallons of water wasted. That is equivalent to about 15 million barrels.

If we relied less on a meat heavy diet and replaced 50% of the animal products normally consumed, there would be a 30% decrease in an individual’s water footprint. If individuals had a vegetarian diet, their water footprint would be decreased even more to about 60%. Seeking out less meat hungry diets will help to conserve the amount of water used for Alfalfa.

The Water Footprint of Livestock

After researching the effects of raising livestock and poultry for meat, I found that the negative consequences were even worse than I expected. The total amount of water needed to produce one pound of beef is 1,799 gallons of water and one pound of pork takes 576 gallons of water. (Food Tank). As a comparison, the water footprint of soybeans only takes 216 gallons of water. Beef requires the largest amount of water because the bigger the animal, the more resources required such as more drinking water and water to clean etc. However, the resources that beef requires goes way beyond just water. The thousands of pounds of food cows are fed such as corn require large quantities of fertilizers, land, and fuel for farming machines, and lead to more fossil fuels and pollution. This ties into our class discussion about how cows produce large amounts of methane.

This issue is important because global meat production has doubled and will continue this upward trend. It is difficult to suggest people to become vegetarian, but reducing meat intake by 1/3 could lead to a 1/3 reduction in water usage. There is not a single human activity that affects the planet more than raising livestock.

This photo gives a visual of how water usage sky rockets due to the consumption of beef.


Water footprints

We have discussed the CO2 emissions of beef and naturally, the amount of water it takes to produce this beef by raising cattle is extraordinarily high. However, it is just just cows that contribute to our global water footprint, every product does, but especially animal products which require so much water to raise an animal. The Water Footprint Network provides an interactive model that shows how much water it takes to produce many of the foods and products we use daily, including chicken.

According to the article, the average water footprint of chicken is 4330 L/kg, or about 519 gal/lb. Although this quantity is less than other common animals such as cows (15,400 L/kg) or pigs (6000 L/kg). It is important to use tools like this to visualize how our food choices impact the global water footprint.

The Ecological Impact of Almonds

Do you substitute half&half with almond milk? Or do you snack on almonds for a quick stomach fill? Well, I do. Oddly enough, I have never considered the ecological footprint for the production of almonds, have you? Well, according to the well-regarded California Almonds Organization, it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond. In a classic serving size, there are 23 almonds. This calculates to 25.3 gallons of water used to make only 1 serving of almonds. The amount of water used per one serving of almonds is more than quadruple the amount of water used for an efficient dishwasher to run or for an efficient toilet to flush according to the in class activity. Also, 99% of the total production of almonds comes from California. California also produces 80% of the world’s production. As California is in a current drought, and the fact that almonds require 10% of California’s total water supply each year, one could say that this statistic is astounding. But, if you were to purchase 1 quart size container of almond milk, and use it for your cereal or in your coffee, you are consuming less than half of a serving of almonds, which is about 12.7 gallons of water, which is comparable to 5 loads of laundry. The effect of the amount of water required for almonds must be relatively compared, like all products. This is exemplified by comparing the amount of water required to produce 1 gram of protein from almonds and beef. For almonds, 1 gram of protein requires 4 gallons of water, while for 1 gram of beef; 27 gallons of water are needed. As for water amount, it takes 6 times less the amount of water to produce protein out of almonds than it is from beef.

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.