Raising Beef is not Killing the Environment

4 minute read

Periodically I see people on Twitter claiming that we shouldn’t eat beef because it takes XXX gallons of water to raise a single pound of meat, where XXX is some ridiculously large number.

The general consensus put forth by Twitterers with “eco” or “green” in their usernames is 2,500 gallons of water to 1 pound of beef.

This tweet, for example, links to a Yahoo! Answers discussion.

This tweet links to this article from EarthSave International.

Both of the aforementioned tweets use the 2,500 gallons per 1 pound of beef figure. What’s not so clear is how the number was determined in each case.

The Yahoo! Answers discussion arrives at the number from a YouTube video titled You can’t be a meat eating environmentalist by a user named “LiveVegan”. In the course of this video, text is shown on the screen, citing various “facts” about the livestock industry. One of the facts is the 2,500 gallons of water statement. The video does not state where this number came from, nor does it cite any of its sources in any more detail than “2006 United Nations Report & WoodstockFAS.org”.

The EarthSave link similarly comes up with the 2,500 gallon number, based on a couple of sources. The first source is “a statement by the renowned scientist Dr. Georg Borgstrom at the 1981 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science”. The next is the book Population, Resources, Environment, apparently published in 1978 and not easily obtained (at least for me). The last source cited is a publication titled Water Inputs in California Food Production, that is described as distributed by the Water Education Foundation. I visited the Water Education Foundation’s website at http://www.watereducation.org/, but was unable to find this publication.

What do we have so far from Twitterers to support the 2,500 gallons per pound of beef claim? One YouTube video published by a person who could certainly be seen as having a biased opinion, and an article published at an indeterminate date quoting a statement, a 30-year old book, and an article that can’t be found.

I was raised on a cattle ranch, the same one that my father and grandfather were raised on. It’s probably fair to say that I have a biased opinion of the agriculture industry as well. I can’t, however, just deny the water for beef argument because I don’t like the numbers. I did some research of my own and found startlingly different results.

This article, from a website created by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, gives a number of 435 gallons per pound of beef. This number is backed first by Animal Agriculture and Global Food Supply, from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST). The report is quite exhaustive and places doubt on the larger estimates of water usage due to overestimating the amount of irrigation used in growing the feed.

Both the website and the CAST article reference Estimation of the water requirement for beef production in the United States. This publication delves into great detail about the amount of water used to grow various feed crops, as well as the amount of water used for finishing slaughtered animals. The results of this study were that it takes approximately 441 gallons of water per pound of beef. Additionally, this article points out that livestock production is responsible for just over 11% of all U.S. water use.

Sure, it’s easy to take the outrageous numbers as facts and pass them along, especially when you’re anti-beef. The livestock industry as a whole seems to be a convenient target for environmentalist outcry lately, but I would urge people to keep in mind that “livestock” also includes pork and poultry. Pork and poultry deserve additional scrutiny due to the conditions that the animals are raised under.

I’ve only been arguing the claims that beef requires a large amount of water. There are similar claims regarding the amount of grain it takes to produce a pound of meat. I could probably fill another blog post with this debate, but I can summarize quickly. It takes 2.6 pounds of grain, not 16, to produce a pound of beef. Similarly, a significant amount of cattle feed is not food-grade, meaning it’s inedible for humans.