Why Does It Take So Much Water to Produce Beef?

Beef has one of the largest water footprints of any food. Producing just one kilogram of beef can require over 15,000 liters of water! But where does all this water actually go? Here’s a deeper look at why it takes so much water to produce everyone’s favorite red meat.

The Major Components of Beef’s Water Footprint

The water footprint of beef can be broken down into three main components:

Blue Water

This refers to surface and groundwater used for irrigation, drinking, cleaning, etc Blue water is withdrawn from rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and aquifers – finite resources that are depleted through use Beef production consumes high amounts of blue water.

Green Water

This refers to rainfall consumed by the grass and crops that cattle eat. In countries where cattle are grass-fed, green water constitutes a large part of beef’s total water footprint. However, since green water cannot be repurposed, it has less of an environmental impact.

Grey Water

This refers to the freshwater needed to dilute pollutants from agricultural runoff and leaching. Cattle manure and fertilizers used to grow feed crops are major contributors to grey water.

Where Does the Water Go?

Here’s a breakdown of how water is used in beef production

  • Feed production – The vast majority (around 98%) goes towards irrigating pastures and growing feed crops. This can be blue, green, or grey water.

  • Drinking water – Cattle drink large volumes of water throughout their lives.

  • Cleaning – Water is used to wash animals, equipment, and facilities on farms and in slaughterhouses.

  • Processing – Water is used for hides, packaging, and processing beef products.

Feed Production Is the Main Culprit

Producing animal feed accounts for the lion’s share of water used for beef production. Let’s look closer at how this breaks down:

  • Pasture irrigation – Beef cattle may spend 6 months or more grazing on irrigated grasslands, using high volumes of blue water.

  • Feed crops – Crops like corn and soy irrigated with blue water are common in industrial farming. Alfalfa hay also has a large water footprint.

  • Grain-finishing – Feedlots can use over 1,000 lbs of water-intensive grains to quickly fatten cattle before slaughter.

As you can see, the type of feeding system and the crops used greatly impact the amount of water needed. Beef produced in water-stressed regions using irrigated feeds generally has a much higher blue water footprint.

How Much Water for a Serving of Beef?

Researchers have calculated that producing just one 375g serving of beef in the UK requires:

  • 33 liters of blue water – Mostly for raising and feeding the animal

  • 700-1000 liters – Water used in the slaughterhouse

In comparison, foods like potatoes and rice have a much lower blue water footprint per serving.

However, the global average is much higher. In the U.S., one serving of beef produced in a feedlot system can require 1,800 gallons (6,800 liters) of blue water or more.

Why Grass-Fed Makes a Difference

Where and how cattle are raised greatly impacts the water footprint. grain-fed cattle in feedlots have a much higher blue water footprint. However, cattle raised exclusively on pasture require:

  • Mostly green water from rainfall consumed by grasses.

  • Lower amounts of finite blue water for drinking, cleaning, etc.

So choosing grass-fed beef, when possible, substantially reduces the amount of water depleted from rivers and aquifers.

Other Environmental Considerations

While water usage is important, other factors also contribute to beef’s environmental impact:

  • Land use – Vast areas are needed for grazing and feed crop production

  • Greenhouse gases – Cattle produce methane emissions and growing feed crops requires fertilizers.

  • Pollution – Manure and fertilizers can contaminate waterways.

  • Biodiversity loss – Habitat destruction to create new grazing land.

As you can see, beef production places a substantial burden on the planet in many ways. Reducing intake of conventionally raised beef can help lower your personal water and environmental footprint.

In the end, beef has an exceptionally high water footprint due to the massive volumes required to irrigate pastures and produce cattle feed. But switching to grass-fed sources and moderating intake can substantially reduce the amount of water needed to put beef on your plate. Along with other measures like reducing food waste, small changes in how we consume beef can add up to big water savings.

Understanding the ‘water footprint’ of beef


Why is so much water used to make beef?

In addition to raising the animal, 700 litres to 1,000 litres of water is used per animal in the abattoir for washing and hygiene. Not all of the carcass makes beef – some of it may make dog food and there’s also inedible hide and bone – so the total water consumption has to be allocated among all the products.

How much water does it take to produce 1 lb of beef?

While it’s a well-established fact that meat production requires more water than fruits, vegetables or grains, an average water footprint of 2,000 gallons per pound of beef (we now generally use 1,850 gallons per pound) is enormous.

Does it take more water to produce pork or beef?

While the water it takes to make a hamburger is high – beef has a particularly high water footprint at about 1,800 gallons per pound – pork and chicken also take quite a bit, with pork at 578 gallons and chicken at 468 gallons.

Why does it take so much water to produce food?

It takes a surprising amount of water to grow and process food, because crops cannot grow without water, especially not without irrigation water.

Does beef affect water?

To make informed choices about the impact of beef on the world’s water, you need to know where the meat was produced. If you are eating beef from the western US, it could have a serious impact on how much water is available for everything else, whereas beef in Britain is more benign.

What are the benefits of having beef?

Beef is an excellent source of protein having 26 grams per 100 grams of serve. Besides, it is rich in vitamin B-12, B-6 and iron. Consumption of beef must be encouraged to meet the protein requirements and overcome nutritional deficiencies like protein-energy deficiency, nutritional deficiency anaemia, megaloblastic anaemia etc. However, beef has high amounts of saturated fats which are potentially capable of elevating the bad cholesterol in the body. Thus, its consumption should be restricted to only once or twice a week and the maximum serving per person should not increase 50 grams.

Does beef use water?

As a result, one must be cautious about generalizing water footprints for beef or any other product on a national scale. However, there are examples of innovative systems that integrate beef and crop production in the southern High Plains to more efficiently use water.

How does beef affect its water footprint?

Looking in more detail reveals that how and where the beef is farmed has a huge effect on its water footprint . Food production accounts for 70% of freshwater withdrawn from the environment. Using large amounts of water to produce beef has been driving water scarcity in the western US, among other places.

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