I frequently hear alarming numbers when it comes to beef production. Among the most wide repeated number, not just in social media or pseudo documentaries like Cowspiracy, but respectable publications, is the horrendous amount of water needed to produce beef — usually 10,000 to 200,000 liters per kg.
Considering how scarce the resource water is in many places on this planet, this is a very powerful argument against raising cattle.
I decided to check up on some source material and find out where these numbers came from. So here we go.
The first credible source I find is Pimentel et al with an article in Bioscience from 1980. Pintmeal states that producing 1 kg of beef requires approximately 200kg of forage (grass, shrubs) or 10kg of grain. To produce 200kg of forage “requires approximately 200,000 litres of water” or “14,000 liters of water to produce 10kg of grain.”
So Pimentel (and 34 years later the National Geographic in the graphic above) suggest that it takes 1000 liters of water to produce 1 kg of forage and 1350 liters of water to produce 1 kg of grain. Following this logic it would seem that is is more water efficient to feed the cows grain instead of hey, as grain is much more nutritious than hey and it ‘only’ takes 10kg of grain to produce one 1kg of beef and thus less water. Let’s lock cows up and feed them grain — which humans could eat! — instead of having them roam free and eat grass and shrubs — which humans can not eat. This is (and i am not joking) an argument brought up in the recent movie Cowspiracy. Along the same line of logic, the otherwise decent documentary Before the Flood argues that, hey, if you really need to have some meat between your teeth, then let it be chicken instead of beef. The argument is based on a completely false premise.
I work on a cattle farm in the mountains where the cows only eat grass, no grain at all. And for the life of me I can not think of any occasion where we would have watered the pastures. In fact, many homeowners in our region find that grass seems to just keep growing no matter what you do, which is why they use lawnmowers… So where does the number of 1000 liters of water for 1kg of hay come from?
Pimentel cites ‘Thomas, 1987’. That study refers to ‘Thomas, 1977’ — a study which could not be found in Google Scholar or anywhere else on the Internet. Subsequent research however made it clear that what Thomas counted as “water usage” is every drop of rainwater that falls on the average English pasture. Let the ridiculousness of this logic sink in.
After rain falls on the pasture, most of it is absorbed by the soil and becomes valuable ground water or ends up in the ocean via streams and rivers. This is what is called ‘green water’. Water that occurs naturally, did not get polluted and remains in the natural water cycle.
What about the water the cow drinks? On our farm, the water comes directly from the mountains and it ends up on our pastures — in the form of urine. The plants and the soil take out all the nutrients from the urine and the water ends up in our streams. No water being “used up” whatsoever.
What about washing the stables? — again, water from our well ending up on the pasture.
I think I can reasonably sum up that we ‘use up’ zero liters of water for all of our cows together. And as Allan Savory argues, in other regions of the world, proper animal husbandry can actually contribute to building up soil fertility and allowing for a constant cover of the soil by grass, which actually helps retain water.
So the argument that because it takes 10,000–200,000 liters of water to produce 1kg of beef we should stop eating meat is like saying it takes 1,000,000 liters of water to take a swim so we should stop swimming. If you had to fill up an olympic sized swimming pool in the middle of the desert every time to take one swim and then drain the pool, then we really should ban swimming. But if you take swim in a mountain lake, then… i think you see my point.
So lets get this straight: if we raise cows where it is appropriate — not in a desert like Saudi Arabia — and cows will not end up “using” any water at all.
I urge everyone who cares about the health of our planet and the suffering of animals in industrial animal husbandry to stop spreading fake numbers like this (or this) and instead become aware about the difference between sustainable and necessary animal husbandry and the unsustainable, unnecessary and unethical industrial animal husbandry.
If we want real, sustainable change, we need to have facts on our side. So let’s get them straight.
I want to give credit to Simon Fairlie and his fantastic book Meat: A Benign Extravagance for a lot of the source material.
For more information, I suggest you check out my TEDx: Cows will feed the world and save the Planet
For further reading, please check out:
The flawed logic of cows as climate killers. Or: lets get rid of all the trees, they also produce CO2 emissions.
The Ecologically Optimal Amount of Animal Products is not Zero. Far from it.
Going one year without beef saves 3,432 trees — no it does not!
The moral case for eating meat
Cattle vs. the Climate
A Vegan couple eats Meat again for the first time in 40 years after operating their own farm. Here is why:
Eating Meat — The ecological and Moral Arguments: My conversation with two Vegans
The Greatest Ecological Cock-up of recent History
Your organic vegetables are all meat eaters!