Choosing a Vegan lifestyle is not something to be done lightly. It should be a well researched and well reasoned decisions. There is a lot of misinformation from both Vegans and those who are against the Vegan ideology. Here you’ll find evidence based research about Veganism and the impact it can have, as well as some fantastic plant based recipes.
One of the common talking points in favor of a Vegan lifestyle is in regards to the water requirements of producing beef. Let’s look at the facts and see if this argument holds up.
First, let’s get a good idea of how much water it takes to produce beef. To make our calculations easy, and set a good baseline for figuring this out, we’re going to work based on a 1000 lb. steer. Now, most of the Vegan sources I can find claim 7 lbs of feed are required per lb of beef, but they don’t break it down much further, so we’re discard those figures for the moment. I’m going to work on a per day basis first.
Over the course of 1 day, a steer of this size will require 5-60 gallons of water, depending on the temperature. The most common average people use is about 25 gallons across the board. We’ll work with that.
Now, let’s look at feed. This varies based on the type of feed used. If you’re using a higher protein grain, you’ll only need about 5 lbs per day. If you’re using the lower protein forage, you’ll need around 27 lbs per day. 1 gallon of water per day is required to produce 1 day worth of forage feed, however, it only takes 30 days to grow. So, 1 day of feed requires 30 gallons of water. 1 gallon of water per day is required to produce 3 days worth of grain feed, however, it takes 103 days to grow. So, it takes about 34 gallons of water per day to product the grain feed. We’re pretty close here on water requirements per feed type, so we’ll use 32 gallons of water per day for food.
Between food and water requirements, a 1000 lb steer requires around 57 gallons of water each day. The FDA reports that the average time to slaughter a steer is at around 45 months. That will be roughly 1,350 days that you will need to feed and water the steer. So, to bring a steer up to the point of slaughter, we’re looking at a requirement of 76,950 gallons of water.
Ok, that’s a lot of water. How much beef does that produce? Well, since we’re really looking at the commercial farming use here, let’s look at retail cuts. For a 1000 lb steer, that amount to about 430 lbs of beef in retail cuts. That amounts to about 178 gallons of water per lb of beef produced. Wow, that’s even worse than the conservative numbers being used on most Vegan information sites, and I only used mid-range averages.
How does this translate on a national scale? In 2013, there were 29.3 million head of beef cattle in the US. That amounts to about 5.2 billion gallons of water required in 2013 to raise beef cattle.
There are, however, initiatives around the country to reuse wastewater. The tend to yield around 40% reuse for agricultural water. Of the 5.2 billion gallons, let’s be generous and say 3 billion are used for agriculture and we can reuse 40% of that for the next planting. That will leave us with about 4 billion gallons of water required for the year for beef cattle.
The question is, what does this mean? Yes, it sounds like a lot of water, but what effect does that have on anything?
Currently, meat production worldwide consists of 22% of the the world’s water use. At our current rate, we’ll be looking at serious problems with freshwater availability by around 2050.
In the end, the water used for meat production is huge, but it’s not the end all problem. It is, however, something that can be very detrimental to humans in the future, and is worth investigating. Will the solution involve people moving more away from a meat based diet? Will it involve more efficient water filtration techniques? That’s for the scientists that are hard at work on this problem. For me, I’ll simply do my part.
Animal Nutrition Handbook http://www.ag.auburn.edu/~chibale/an14beefcattlefeeding.pdf
University of Nebraska – Lincoln http://beef.unl.edu/web/cattleproduction/forageconsumed-day
UoN – Lincoln NebGuide http://www.ianrpubs.unl.edu/epublic/live/g331/build/g331.pdf
Noble Foundation http://www.noble.org/ag/livestock/waterconcerns/
Mississippi State University http://msucares.com/pubs/publications/p2490.pdf
Victoria Department of Environment and Primary Industries http://www.dpi.vic.gov.au/agriculture/farming-management/soil-water/water/solutions/how-much-water-do-i-need and http://www.dpi.vic.gov.au/agriculture/farming-management/recycling-and-waste-management/reclaimed-water-use-in-cattle-production
University of Georgia http://www.caes.uga.edu/commodities/fieldcrops/forages/Ga_Cat_Arc/2002/july02.pdf
University of Idaho http://www.extension.uidaho.edu/drought/irrigatingalfalfa.pdf
Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food, & Forestry http://www.ok.gov/~okag/food/fs-cowweight.pdf
United States Department of Agriculture http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3062519
Montana State University http://waterquality.montana.edu/docs/irrigation/100bushel.shtml
Washington State University http://css.wsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Schillinger_WGY.pdf
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill http://www.unc.edu/~rowlett/units/scales/bushels.html
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association http://www.beefusa.org/beefindustrystatistics.aspx
Virginia Tech http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/452/452-014/452-014.html
National Resources Defense Council http://www.nrdc.org/globalwarming/watersustainability/
Contributor: Robert Sacerich
Robert is a Philosophy of Science and Bioethics student, as well as blogger and science advocate/activist. He has worked extensively within the secular community for various secular nonprofit organizations and public communication causes.
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