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Questioning the Beef Industry’s Water Use

April 22nd is Earth Day. Earth Day is recognized globally by people from all walks of life as a way to foster environmental respect and celebrate conservation.

cattle beef water use

Cattle producers across Canada chose to make their living as stewards of the land and certainly appreciate and depend on a healthy environment.  Earth Day is an excellent time for all of us in the industry to celebrate environmental achievements, and cultivate discussion about further advancement.

Let’s ask questions, seek answers and talk about how we can make continual improvements related to greenhouse gas and manure management, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, nutrient cycling and more.

Water conservation is a hot topic. As concerns rise about depletion of water resources both locally and globally, livestock production and other agriculture sectors are often criticized for water use.

What can the Canadian beef industry do to conserve water?

First we need to take an objective look at beef production’s actual water footprint.

Water use estimates as high as 200,000 liters per kilogram of beef have been published in the past (Thomas, 1997). A more common water use figure, which comes from a 2012 study, claims that it takes 15,415 liters of water to produce one kilogram of beef.

ASAPscience screenshot 2

A video by the popular AsapSCIENCE team, which has been viewed more than 4.7 million times, references 15,000L/kg to support its statement that becoming a vegetarian could greatly reduce water consumption.  It states that beef uses much more water per kilogram than pork, chicken, cereal crops, fruits and garden vegetables. Even when comparing the ratio of water per calorie of available food energy, it states that beef is substantially more water intensive than other foods. The fact that water cycles and does not necessarily disappear is not mentioned.

Is it true? Do we really use 15,000 liters of water to produce each kilogram of beef in Canada?

Green water is moisture from precipitation that is stored in the root zone of the soil and evaporated, transpired or incorporated by plants.

Blue water has been sourced from surface or groundwater resources and is either evaporated, incorporated into a product or taken from one body of water and returned to another, or returned at a different time.

Grey water is the fresh water required to assimilate pollutants to meet specific water quality standards. The grey water footprint considers point-source pollution discharged to a freshwater resource directly through a pipe or indirectly through runoff or leaching from the soil, impervious surfaces, or other diffuse sources.

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There are several methods to assess livestock water use.  The 15,000L/kg of beef number comes from the Water Footprint Analysis approach.  As you read in our recent blog post, Water Fight, the Water Footprint approach estimates how much surface (blue) water is used to water cattle, make fertilizer, irrigate pastures and crops, process beef, etc., how much rain (green) and snow falls on pasture and feed crops, and how much water is needed to dilute runoff from feed crops, pastures and cattle operations (grey water). These blue, green and grey water numbers for cattle produced throughout the world are added together to determine a global water footprint for beef.

An alternative method is to calculate livestock water use with the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) approach. It focuses on the blue water that we deliberately choose to use to produce beef instead of other food. Green water is discounted because rain falls on the land whether cattle or feed was raised there or not. Grey water is discounted because it is very difficult to estimate accurately. The LCA approach is more complex, and results in a much smaller number.

The National Beef Sustainability Assessment, published by the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef in 2016, used the LCA approach and determined that it takes 631 liters of blue water (surface and groundwater) to produce one kilogram, of packed boneless beef (delivered and consumed). This value accounts for blue water used on farm through to human consumption of beef products.

Fundamental differences in assessment models create challenges in comparing results across studies, which may result in inaccurate evaluation and therefore unsuitable recommendations for improving water use efficiencies. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada researchers Dr. Tim McAllister and Dr. Karen Beauchemin, and the University of Manitoba’s Dr. Getahun Legesse and Dr. Kim Ominski have taken an international leadership role to reconcile these differences on how to quantify water use in ruminant production.

They are also working to objectively define the Canadian beef industry’s water footprint.  This work is part of a larger project funded by the Beef Science Cluster and the Canadian Beef Cattle Check-Off.  Similarly to earlier results from that project related to declines in greenhouse emissions and resource use per kilogram of beef produced, the water footprint results will compare water use per kilogram, of Canadian beef in 1981 and 2011.  Identifying whether and to what extent the industry is becoming more efficient in its water use will help contribute to meaningful decision-making in the future.

The Canadian beef water footprint results are expected in late 2017.

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Diane WoodardFebruary 5, 2020

Thank you. I am from southern Colorado in the US where there has long been ranching on natural range lands.


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