Defending Meat: Vegetarian Myth #3 - Beef is unacceptably water-intensive

February 14, 2017 by EPIC Wolf Pack posted on Land + Livestock, Defending Meat

In an increasingly polarized food community in which vegetarians advocate for a diet free from animals, I have found myself baffled by the rhetoric and misinformation propagated by this close-minded collective. Since the inception of EPIC in 2013, anti-meat propaganda has only accelerated and unfortunately continues to misguide and deceive consumers. As a result, vegetarian disinformation has influenced popular and deep-held beliefs in our culture by suggesting that meat consumption is destroying our planet, making us sick, and is inhumane towards animals. We hear different iterations of this myth every day and the vegetarian community has succeeded in making omnivores feel guilty and apologetic for eating meat. Unfortunately, this propaganda has resulted in behaviors that in many cases only proliferate our problems of environmental degradation, malnourishment, and economic despair.

At the top of vegetarian advocacy material, you can expect to find misinformation about water usage as it relates to beef production. As a result, cattle have historically been singled out as the single most water intensive food at the grocery store. Vegetarian advocates will further argue that due to the “massive” amounts of water required to raise beef, we should be diverting this limited resource towards monoculture crop production that can "feed the world"  (prioritizes corn, wheat, and soy). 

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In a world in which future wars will be fought over water and not oil, this conversation is guaranteed to be mindlessly regurgitated by advocates of a plant based diet for years to come. Let's take a close look at agriculture today and shed truth on how much water it actually takes to raise beef. After reading this blog, you will be positioned to confidently debunk this pervasive myth and defend beef like a champion!

The number most often cited by plant based advocates is that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef (although I have listened to people argue that number is as high as 12,000 gallons). A great starting point in deconstructing this myth is to investigate the orgin of this number and how it was calculated. Dr. Pimentel, a credible scientist and university professor calculated this number by assuming that a beef cow consumed 100 kilograms of hay and 4 kilograms of grain per pound of beef produced 1. He then took a generalized assumption that it takes 1,000 liters of water to grow 1kg of wheat and grain. 

What should stand out when reviewing the methodology used to calculate this number is that the research references conventional grain fed beef operations as an industry benchmark. Cows are not biologically adapted to eat grain and I don’t believe they should. Similar to the grass fed/free range beef used in our products, Dr. Pimentel did not account for cattle raised without feeds/external inputs. The innacurate assumption that all meat production results in identical outcomes continues to be an underlying theme found in all our “Defending Meat” blogs. We cannot allow these generalizations and blanket statements to be applied to ALL meat production. Let’s be clear, industrialized/feedlot beef production is an abomination, HOWEVER, grass fed/pasture focused meat production can be a really good thing. The 2,500 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef is calculated on a feedlot model.

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In reaction to growing water concerns, the University of California-Davis undertook an extremely close look at how much water is used when raising beef2. Unlike the Pimentel study, UC Davis researchers considered regional context for ranchers. By taking a more holistic approach they considered where cattle were located, average temperatures, the number of days on feed vs grain, and how many acres of each type of grain would have been irrigated to grow. The outcome of the study concluded that 1 pound of boneless beef uses 441 gallons of water. Significantly lower water usage was calculated versus the Pimentel research primarily due to painstaking detail and considering the actual living conditions of each animal. While a more realistic look into how much water is actually used to grow beef, the UC Davis study continued to focus on grain fed/industrialized beef.

To find a creditable water usage number for grass fed/pastured beef, we must consider the research performed by former vegan and author Lierre Keith. In her book, The Vegetarian Myth, Keith uses the following methodology 3

On pasture, a cow will drink 8-15 gallons of water a day. The average grass fed cow takes 21 months to reach market weight. Thus, grass fed cows will consume between 40,320-75,600 gallons of water in their lifetime. When this cow is harvested, it will yield 450-500 pounds of meat (with 146 pounds of fat and bone removed). When you look at the midpoint of 57,960 gallons of water throughout the animals life and divide that by the mean of 475 pounds of edible beef, we are left with the figure of 122 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of grass fed beef! This figure is the most accurate information we have for grass fed beef and is far from the mainstream misbelife that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a single pound.

So how do the staple foods of a plant based diet compare to the production of grass fed beef? Growing 1 pound of corn takes 309 gallons of water. To produce 1 pound of tofu it requires 302 gallons of water! Rice requires 299 gallons of water. And the winner of most water intensive vegetarian staple food is almonds, which require 1,929 gallons of water to produce one pound 4!

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To conclude, grass fed beef requires significantly less water to produce than rice, corn, tofu, and almonds. When considering the nutritional densities of each of the foods listed above, NOTHING comes close to the vitamins and minerals found in grass fed beef. When you look at the big picture, it's easy to conclude that pasture raised beef is not only a superfood for the end consumer, but a superfood for the environment!

 

REFERENCES:

  1. Vegsource.com, citing Pimentel, D., Westra, L., and Noss, R. Ecological Integrity: Integrating Environment, Conservation, and Health (Island Press, 2001).
  2. Beckett and Oltjen. “Examination of the Water Requirement for Beef Production in the United States.” Journal of Animal Science 71 (1993), 818.
  3. Keith, L. The Vegetarian Myth (PM Press, 2009), 102. 
  4. The Huffington Post - Katherine Boehrer. This is How much Water It Takes To Make Your Favorite Foods (10/13/2014)