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Comment: How much water is needed to produce a pound of beef?

And just as importantly, what kind of water are we talking about?

An excerpt from a Beef Cattle Research Council blog post on the environmental impact of beef production. For the full text, visit beefresearch.ca.

Yes, it takes water to produce beef, but in the 2.5 million years since our ancestors started eating meat, we haven’t lost a drop yet.

Based on the most recent science and extensive calculations of a wide range of factors, it is estimated that the pasture-to-plate journey of this important protein source requires about 1,910 U.S. gallons per pound (or 15,944 litres per kilogram) of water to get Canadian beef to the dinner table. That’s what is known as the “water footprint” of beef production.

That may sound like a lot, but the fact is it doesn’t matter what crop or animal is being produced — food production takes water. Sometimes it sounds like a lot of water, but water that is used to produce a feed crop or cattle is not lost. Water is recycled — sometimes in a very complex biological process — and it all comes back to be used again.

Water requirements vary with animal size and temperature. But on average, a 1,250-pound (567-kg) beef steer only drinks about 10 gallons (about 38 litres) of water per day to support its normal metabolic function. That’s pretty reasonable considering the average person in Canada uses about 59 gallons (223 litres) per day for consumption and hygiene. And according to the most recent Statistics Canada data, Canada’s combined household and industrial use of water is about 37.9 billion cubic metres annually (a cubic metre equals about 220 gallons or 1,000 litres of water). We humans are a water-consuming bunch.

Researchers at the University of Manitoba and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Lethbridge found that in 2011, producing each unit of Canadian beef used 17 per cent less water than 30 years prior. It also required 29 per cent less breeding stock, 27 per cent fewer harvested cattle and 24 per cent less land, and produced 15 per cent less greenhouse gas to produce each pound or kilogram in 2011 compared to 1981.

‘Green’ water falls anyway

But back to the beef industry — agriculture in general and beef producers specifically have often been targeted as being high consumers, even “wasters” of water, taking its toll on the environment. However, there’s a lot more to this story — it’s not as simple as 1,910 gallons of water being used for each pound of edible beef produced.

If the beef animal itself only needs about 10 gallons of water per day to function, what accounts for the rest of the water (footprint) required for that 16-oz. steak? Often in research terms, the water measured in the total water footprint is broken into three colour categories. The footprint includes an estimate of how much surface and ground (blue) water is used to water cattle, make fertilizer, irrigate pastures and crops, process beef, etc. And then there is a measure of how much rain (green) water falls on pasture and feed crops, and finally how much water is needed to dilute run-off from feed crops, pastures and cattle operations (grey water).

Adding these blue, green and grey numbers for cattle produced throughout the world produces a global “water footprint” for beef. It is worth noting that more than 95 per cent of the water used in beef production is green water — it is going to rain and snow whether cattle are on pasture or not. And it is important to remember of all water used one way or another it all gets recycled.

If you look at the life cycle of a beef animal from birth to burger or pasture to pot roast, the 1,910 gallons per pound is accounting for moisture needed to grow the grass it will eat on pasture and for the hay, grain and other feeds it will consume as it is finished to market weight. It also reflects the water used in the processing and packaging needed to get a whole animal assembled into retail cuts and portion sizes for the consumer. Every step of the process requires water.

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