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2,500 Gallons All Wet?
by John Robbins

I have been asked recently whether the figures given in Diet For A New America for how much water it takes to produce a pound of meat today are still accurate.

The figure of 2,500 gallons to produce a pound of meat that I used in Diet For A New America comes from a statement by the renowned scientist Dr. Georg Borgstrom at the 1981 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in a presentation titled “Impacts On Demand For And Quality Of Land And Water.” He was then head of the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University in Lansing, Michigan. Dr. Borgstrom has since passed away (his widow Greta has returned to their native Sweden), but his outstanding books (including The Food And People Dilemma, The Hungry Planet, Too Many, etc.) are still available through used book searches.

It was not only Diet For A New America that publicized this particular statement of Dr. Borgstrom’s. The tenth anniversary edition of Diet For A Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe states, on page 76, “According to food geographer Georg Borgstrom, to produce a 1-pound steak requires 2,500 gallons of water.”

Furthermore, it is not only Dr. Borgstrom that has come to similar conclusions. In their landmark book Population, Resources, Environment, Stanford Professors Paul R. and Anne H. Ehrlich stated that the amount of water used to produce one pound of meat ranges from 2,500 to as much as 6,000 gallons. (Dr. Borgstrom, Drs. Ehrlich and I all used the word “meat,” to refer specifically to beef.)

Are These Figures Outdated?

I’m not aware of anything that has changed in the production of modern meat that has made the industry more water efficient.The December, 1999, issue of Audubon concurs, stating (page 110), “Nearly half the water consumed in this country…is used for livestock, mostly cattle.” There have, however, been interesting developments relative to these figures.

In 1978, Herb Schulbach (Soil and Water Specialist, University of California Agricultural Extension), along with livestock farm advisors Tom Aldrich, Richard E. Johnson, and Ken Mueller, published extensive research on water use in California agriculture in the journal Soil and Water (no. 38, fall 1978). They concluded that the average pound of beef produced in California required 5,214 gallons of water.

The livestock industry took great offense at this. Schulbach told me that they “turned a scientific project into political football.” Subsequently, at the behest of the cattlemen, Jim Oltjen and colleagues in the Department of Animal Science at U.C. Davis came out with a very different calculation, asserting the requirements for a pound of beef to be 441 gallons of water. Jim Oltjen’s work, along with similar work by Gerald Ward (Department of Animal Science, Colorado State University) forms the basis for the figures that the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association have used ever since to rebut the arguments of environmentalists who point to the enormous waste of water involved in modern beef production. (How identified Jim Oltjen is with the industry can be glimpsed from his official portrait at the University of California, where he wears a cowboy hat.)

When Alan Durning wrote Worldwatch Paper #103, “Taking Stock: Animal Farming and the Environment,” which was the basis for Worldwatch Editorial Director Ed Ayres’ recent major piece in the November 8, 1999 issue of Time magazine (in which Ed references 840 gallons per pound of beef), he based his calculations on the cattlemen’s own figures. Right after that came out, I discussed the matter with Alan, and asked him why he had used these fi gures. He said it was because the cattlemen use them, and while the accurate figure is undoubtedly far higher, it seemed better to publish figures the cattlemen couldn’t argue with since these figures are damning enough.

Making Sense of it All

How is the layperson to determine which of these figures is most accurate and up-to-date? A remarkable source of objective information for this question is the Water Education Foundation in Sacramento. This non-profit organization prides itself on being “the only impartial organization to develop and implement educational programs leading to a broader understanding of water issues and to resolution of water problems.” The Water Education Foundation currently distributes a comprehensive analysis titled “Water Inputs in California Food Production,” which references the work of both Herb Schulbach and Jim Oltjen, as well as the work of Gerald Ward (the other source for the Cattlemen’s data), and hundreds of other experts in the field. Extraordinarily thorough, this 162-page analysis is uniquely pertinent because it surveys the work in this area done by many of the leading experts representing the livestock industry (including the American Meat Institute), and many others representing public interest and environmental perspectives. Currently distributed by the Water Education Foundation, the study concludes that each pound of California beef requires 2,464 gallons of water — a number virtually identical to the 2,500 gallon figure I use in Diet For A New America.

Western Water Crisis

For further understanding, one can also read authors such as Marc Reisner, former staff writer at the Natural Resources Defense Council and the author of the highly acclaimed Cadillac Desert, a history of water and the American West. (PBS made a multi-part documentary series of Cadillac Desert.) Writing in the New York Times in 1989, Reisner wrote: “In California, the single biggest consumer of water is not Los Angeles. It is not the oil and chemicals or defense industries. Nor is it the fields of grapes and tomatoes. It is irrigated pasture: grass grown in a near-desert climate for cows. In 1986, irrigated pasture used about 5.3 million acre-feet of water — as much as all 27 million people in the state consumed, including for swimming pools and lawns…. Is California atypical? Only in the sense that agriculture in California, despite all the desert grass and irrigated rice, accounts for proportionately less water use than in most of the other western states. In Colorado, for example, alfalfa to feed cows consumes nearly 30% of all the state’s water, much more than the share taken by Denver…. The West’s water crisis — and many of its environmental problems as well — can be summed up, implausible as this may seem, in a single word: livestock.”

Of course, beef produced in different parts of the country will take different amounts of water. Beef produced in the Southeast takes much less water because you don’t need to irrigate nearly as much thanks to so much more rain during the growing season. Arizona and Colorado beef, on the other hand, take even more water than California’s. Even Jim Oltjen (the author of the lower figure that the cattlemen use) acknowledges that nationwide, half of the grain and hay that is fed to American beef cattle is grown on irrigated land. Putting this all together, a figure of 2,500 gallons for a national average strikes me as still valid and useful.

(Incidentally, the primary reason more water is used to produce a pound of beef than a pound of pork or chicken is because the pork and poultry industries in the United States are generally concentrated in areas where grain fields need little or no irrigation, and because their feed conversion ratios are more efficient.)

Underestimating water use has hazards. The problem with water, as has often been pointed out, is that the shortfalls don’t show up until the very end. You can go on pumping unsustainably until the day you run out. Then all you have is the recharge flow, which comes from precipitation, and which comes nowhere close to the levels of use you’ve come to take for granted. It’s a bit like driving a car without a fuel gauge. You push down on the gas pedal and the car accelerates, and you conclude that you’ve got plenty of gas — until the moment that you suddenly run out. But it’s even more important with water that we don’t underestimate usage because there are alternatives to oil, such as hydrogen, solar, wind, etc., but there aren’t alternatives to water. If we run out, we can’t grow food nor maintain other essential life functions. If we continue pumping out the Ogallala aquifer at current rates for U.S. beef production, it is only a matter of time before wells in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Colorado, and New Mexico go dry, and portions of these states become scarcely habitable for human beings.

The More Things Change…

It’s true that Diet For A New America is now twelve years old. Some things have changed in the meantime. For example, the discussion of AIDS, written in 1986, could not possibly have included the enormous developments that have taken place concerning this disease since then. For another example, incidents of E. coli 0157:H7 poisoning have become far more frequent — and with USDA scientists now using more sensitive technology that has only recently become available, they will soon be finding this deadly strain of bacteria to be far more prevalent in cattle than anyone had thought. Mad Cow disease had not arisen when the book was written, and so is not mentioned. A great many examples lie in the areas of nutrition, where knowledge has advanced greatly in the past dozen years. But I see no evidence that the amount of water used in the production of beef has declined during this time. Nor do I see any evidence that the disastrous environmental impact and exorbitant waste of natural resources involved in modern meat production has improved in the slightest.