Opinion: Let’s celebrate World Water Day… by sinking the boot into red meat

Jon Condon, 20/03/2013


The United Nations marks World Water Day on March 22 each year, and in the lead-up to this Friday’s event, mainstream media has taken the opportunity to unfairly portray beef as a grossly wasteful misuser of water resources.

News Ltd newspapers across Australia publishing the ‘Headstart’ educational resource for primary school students this morning singled-out beef for rough treatment, using water use data that has been widely discredited as providing any realistic measure of beef’s water footprint.

The two-page feature suggests, using graphics and tables published here, and accessible in larger format via the tile at the base of this page, that it takes 2500 litres of water to produce a single 150 gram burger pattie.

Among a long list of staple food and clothing items published on the list, the beef burger is listed as the second most water-extravagant, exceeded only by a pairs of shoes (bovine leather) which it claims requires 8000 litres of water to produce. Next highest was a cotton T-shirt (2000 litres) and a glass of milk (200 litres). A glass of apple juice looks positively miserly in comparison, at 190 litres.

The huge flaw in the methodology used to make the calculations, is that it simplistically attributes every drop of rain that falls across beef producing areas to the production of beef. The point is, beef production in some form covers 75 percent of the Australian landmass, and the rain would fall, regardless of whether it is utilised – via grass – for beef production.


Life Cycle assessment only valid measure

Meat & Livestock Australia has attempted to counter such flawed arguments for some years, using resources such as Red Meat, Green Facts.

Quoting a 2009 University of New South Wales red meat production life cycle assessment (LCA), it suggests it takes between 103 and 540 litres of water to produce a kilogram of beef in Australia.

Even at the upper end of that scale, that represents just 81 litres of water to produce a 150g burger pattie.

The life cycle assessment methodology measures the use of diverted water, or water that could be used for other purposes, by the cattle and sheep industry, taking into account drinking water, growing feed where irrigation is used, cleaning and processing.

“Occasionally claims are made that large volumes of water as high as 50,000 litres are required to produce a kilogram of beef,” the MLA report says.

“These figures arise from virtual water figures, which attribute every drop of rain that falls on a cattle property to the production of beef, and don’t take into consideration that most of the rainwater ends up in soils, groundwater and natural waterways, or is lost via evaporation, whether cattle are present or not.”

The report argues that Life Cycle Assessments provide a far more accurate measure of the cattle industry’s water footprint than a ‘virtual water’ figure which was not designed to assess environmental impact.

The problem is, how many consumers/students get to see this information, in order to shape their opinions, in comparison with mass media misreporting like that published in this morning’s News Ltd Headstart report?

News Ltd’s two-page ‘Headstart’ feature on World Water Day quotes the United Nations-backed website for its data on water requirements to produce different food and clothing items.

The Water Footprint Network is a non-profit international foundation. Its members include prominent animal welfare and environmental lobby groups, university and other research institutions, government bodies and a limited number of commercial businesses.   

In a section devoted to beef, the group’s website suggests the global average water footprint of beef is 15,400 litres/kg.

“This is predominantly green (i.e. not recycled) water (94pc). The water footprint related to the animal feed takes by far the largest share (99pc) in the total water footprint of beef. Drinking and service water contribute only 1pc toward the total water footprint.”

The major fraction (83pc) of the water footprint of a beef cow is attributed to the derived beef, but smaller fractions go to the other products like offal, leather and semen, the report suggests.

“One piece of beef can be very different from another. The precise water footprint of beef strongly depends on the production system from which the beef is derived (grazing, mixed or industrial), the composition of the feed and the origin of the feed.”

“Due to the large feed conversion efficiency, beef from industrial systems generally has a lower total water footprint than beef from mixed or grazing systems. But due to the larger fraction of concentrates in the feed of cattle in industrial systems and the fact that concentrates have a larger water footprint than roughages, industrial beef has generally larger blue (derived) and grey (recycled) water footprints than beef from mixed or grazing systems.”

“Given the fact that freshwater problems mostly relate to blue (not derived or recycled) water scarcity and water pollution and to a lesser extent to competition over green water, this means that grazing systems are preferable over industrial production systems from a water resources point of view,” the report says.

Apparently based solely on the land area utilised by beef production, the report suggests the water footprint of meat from beef cattle (15,400 litres/kg as a global average) is much larger than the footprints of sheep meat (10,400 litres/kg), pork (6000 litres/kg),  goatmeat (5500 litres/kg) or chicken (4300 litres/kg).

Per kilogram of product, animal products generally had a larger water footprint than crop products, the report suggests.

“The same is true when we look at the water footprint per calorie or protein. The average water footprint per calorie for beef is twenty times larger than for cereals and starchy roots. The average water footprint per gram of protein in the case of beef is six times larger than for pulses,” it claims.

“The global water footprint of beef production in the period 1996-2005 was about 800 billion m3/yr, which was one third of the total water footprint of animal production in the world (all farm animals).”

  • The UN’s World Water Day held on March 22 each year is used as a means of focussing attention on the importance of freshwater and advocating for the sustainable management of freshwater resources.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your comment will not appear until it has been moderated.
Contributions that contravene our Comments Policy will not be published.


Get Beef Central's news headlines emailed to you -