Ten Inconvenient Truths About Water - #5

It requires nearly 1,800 gallons of water to produce (i.e., feed and “finish”) one pound of beef[1]. This means the steak you are salivating over (that 3 oz. portion) required almost 342 gallons of water to produce, or more than six times the water required to grow a pound of green beans (52 gallons)[2]. Add this to the growing litany of reasons our heavy-meat diet is problematic:

  • Cattle in the U.S. release 6.1 million tons of methane each year into the atmosphere, accounting for 20% of our methane emissions[3] and 9% of all our greenhouse gas emissions[4].  Since methane (CH4) is over 20 times more effective in trapping heat than is carbon dioxide (CO2), cattle emissions are something to care about.  (Wait, did I really write that?) Some smart farmers, at least, are capturing this methane in anaerobic digesters and burning it to produce electricity.
  • Much of the vast open rangeland on the American West suffers from overgrazing by cattle and other livestock.  The impacts are numerous and include: reductions in species richness, grazing productivity and water quality; increases in surface runoff; loss of biodiversity, topsoil, and riparian vegetation; desertification; and soil compaction. 
  • It takes approximately 208 gallons of crude oil to raise one feedlot steer[5].  Energy-intensity is the name of the game in the very long industrial supply chain that is the American food system. Oil and gas are used as raw materials and energy to manufacture fertilizers and pesticides, and to plant, irrigate, feed, harvest, process, distribute, package and transport feed and meat[6].  Since inputs to my homegrown vegetables consist of worm juice, homemade compost and occasionally llama dung from a nearby ranch, the fossil fuel requirements of my garden are miniscule in comparison (save the petroleum that went into manufacturing garden tools and supplies and fueling the occasional car trip to a local nursery.)  Oh, and by the way, a cow raised in a feedlot requires three times the fossil fuel input of a cow on pasture[7].  Perhaps Victory Gardens should prevail over war in Iraq.
  • The constituents of animal waste inevitably make their way from the barnyard to the nearest stream or aquifer, polluting our waters with nutrients (see Inconvenient Truth #3), pharmaceuticals, pathogens and all sorts of other nasties. 
  • We’ve cleared about 260 million acres of forest in the U.S. to make way for cropland used to support a meat-centered diet[8].
  • Oh, and did you see Food, Inc.? Animal cruelty is certainly part of the picture, as are human health concerns.

If this isn’t enough fodder, check out this great New York Times (2008) story by Mark Bittman: Rethinking the Meat Guzzler.  All this being said, I still eat meat occasionally, and most often with much deliberation.  Ask Michael Pollan, author of Omnivore’s Dilemma; these are not easy decisions.


[1] www.waterfootprint.org

[2] www.waterfootprint.org/Reports/Report11.pdf

[3] www.epa.gov/rlep/faq.html

[4] www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/1605/ggccebro/chapter1.html

[5] www.bakewellrepro.com/oiltobroilarticle.html

[6] www.energybulletin.net/node/5045

[7] www.bakewellrepro.com/oiltobroilarticle.html

[8] www.consumercide.com/js/index.php/food-supply/39-necessarily-vegetarian/379-how-to-win-an-argument-with-a-meat-eater.html

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