The Surprising Amount Of Water It Takes To Produce A Pound Of Beef

Posted: Apr 14, 2022

Whether industrial or pasture-raised, one pound of beef takes an average of 2,000 gallons of water to produce (though that water footprint is "greener" for pasture-raised cows because it incorporates the natural cycle of rainfall). To compare, Foodtank says that one pound of pork takes 718 gallons, while soybeans only take 206. These numbers show the resource-intensive state of the current beef supply system, which is only projected to grow along with the human population. But by acknowledging the amount of water the beef cattle industry consumes, we can begin to take sustainable steps forward.

When raising beef cattle, two processes largely determine the amount and type of water supply it will take to turn a 1,000-pound-and-change cow into a neatly packaged burger patty: industrial-raised and pasture-raised processes. It might come as no surprise that in the United States, industrial processes that prioritize quick turnarounds are the norm, with 80% of beef cattle raised industrially (via FoodPrint). While time spent in industrial feedlots allows for rapid weight gain, it's not without consequences like land use, waste, pollution, and stressed water supplies.

By comparison, pasture-raised cattle slow down production time because they take a longer time to gain weight. According to the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, it takes anywhere from 24 to 28 months for grass-fed cattle to reach market weight. However, because these cows feed on grass that is watered by rainfall, the water footprint of pasture-raised beef is much friendlier. Still, it doesn't mean it's environmentally sound. Not only do pasture-raised cattle take up a lot of land, but their slow growth rates mean they produce more methane gas during their life cycles (via PubMed).

We can decrease our own personal water footprints by making simple decisions to reduce consumption in our daily lives. However, like cattle, the greatest contributor to our own water footprints is the food we eat. When possible, opting for beef with grass-fed labels, choosing a less water-intensive protein like chicken or fish, or beginning to introduce vegetarian-based meals into our diets are small but effective ways for us all to become more resource-conscious.

By Claire Redden
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