Water Wars

“Water, water, everywhere / nor any drop to drink.” So goes The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by renowned British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The human body is 60 percent water, and we can survive only three days without it.[1]


Given the high stakes of the climate talks in Paris, it’s clear that water management is not only as personal as how long a shower lasts, but also political. And when Governor Jerry Brown of California threatens to fine cities, water districts, and private water countries USD$10,000 per day in violation of drought regulations, it’s also serious business.

Water, in terms of an input for agriculture and livestock management, is just one of many potential insights into the complexity–and fragility–of our global food system. There are a number of other issues in the multifaceted meat trade that could act similarly as a lens into the political, economic, and social nature of food: land grabbing, antibiotic contamination, intellectual property rights, waste management, greenhouse gas emissions in transport, religious law, food safety and handling, or workers’ rights.

To understand meat production, it’s important to understand that it’s part of a system­–one that involves farmers, flies, refrigerated cars, and corn patents. Regarding the role of water in this system, there are three key concepts to know: water footprint, crop production and feed conversion. After all, as consumers, we have the opportunity to inform ourselves about the linkages between the water management, feed production, and livestock sectors, and in doing so, can help create a healthier, more resilient food system.


According to scholar Colin Sage, we are in the midst of a “nutrition transition,” as individual incomes, population, and urbanization have risen together with meat consumption.[2] Still, this is quite a recent phenomenon, as scientist Vaclav Smil notes that major dietary changes only got underway in Europe during the 19th century, when the threat of death from not consuming enough food subsided and tastes changed to incorporate dining out and “new,” more expensive foods, such as meat.[3] As more and more societies join in the “nutrition transition,” meat consumption, estimated at 228 million metric tons by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2009, is expected to double to 465 million metric tons by 2050.[4] Overall, human health and environmental health go hand in hand. Reducing our global water footprint in line with nutritional guidelines, such as the October 2015 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) identifying the potential cancer-causing properties of meat, is one potential way to create a safer ecosystem that is less vulnerable to disruptions in climate change, including drought or extreme temperature fluctuation.

Nonetheless, the point here is not to prescribe dietary changes, but rather to understand some of the connections between food and the environment on a broader level. Indeed, the relatively new and interdisciplinary concept of “nutritional water productivity” demonstrates the linkages between human health, resource management, and one of the key goals of capitalism.[5]

Efforts so far to reduce the water footprint along the meat production supply chain have focused on measures such as introducing drip irrigation technology in crop cultivation or maximizing feed conversion by creating confined animal feedlots (CAFOs).[6] But what do these three terms mean?


“The average water footprint per calorie for beef is 20 times larger than for cereals and starchy roots,” says an article in the Los Angeles Times. Cornell Professor David Pimentel argues it takes 200 times more water to make a pound of beef than a pound of potatoes.[7] A report by scientist Arjen Hoeskstra states that the water footprint per gram of protein for milk, eggs, and chicken meat is about 1.5 times larger than for plant-based legumes such as peas, beans, and lentils.[8]

While there is certainly a range in these calculations­–some gathered by the FAO, some by watchdog organizations, and some by universities funded by grants from multinationals­–the consensus seems to be that meat has a larger water footprint than plant-based products.

Water usage can be broken down into three types–green, blue, and grey–and varies based on the type of production system–grazing, mixed, or industrial.

Blue water refers to the consumption of surface and groundwater that is evaporated, incorporated into a plant or animal, or transferred from one body of water to another. Green water refers to the water from precipitation that is stored in the soil and evaporated, transpired or drawn up by plants.[9] Making the “good vs. bad” distinction between grazing and industrial systems more nuanced, the total water footprint of an animal product is generally larger in a grazing system than in an industrial system, because of a larger green water footprint.[10] Finally, grey water refers to the volume of freshwater required to absorb pollutants in the local water supply given natural water quality standards. Overall, blue and grey water footprint levels are higher in industrial meat systems.

(For full data sets as well as a more technical explanation of how water footprints are calculated, see the reports published in 2010 by the UNESCO Institute for Water Education (IHE), which breaks down the numbers for crops and derived crop products as well as farm animals and animal products.)

Drawing on this data, several online calculators produced by media organizations allow users to visualize the water footprint of a plate of food or a specific product.

For example, the following meal, presented by the Los Angeles Times, took about 3,766 liters or water to produce.


In addition, National Geographic offers comparisons between items such as beef and pork, or goat and chicken, in their infographic, “The Hidden Water We Use.” (There is also the option to compare grains like millet and maize, or drinks like wine and coffee.)


Livestock accounts for 40% of global grain production–not an insignificant figure.[11] Furthermore, agriculture accounts for 69 percent of global freshwater withdrawals, according to estimates by the FAO. Still, these numbers are largely unseen by consumers, given that most water usage in meat production happens even before animals enter the picture–in the production (and overproduction) of wheat, maize, and soybeans, for example, as feed.

The chart below breaks down the average water footprint of selected feed components for selected countries from 1996 to 2005, as cubic meters of water per ton of feed.[12] (Note: given that these calculations are made by volume rather than weight and are somewhat difficult to conceptualize, this data has been provided more for comparison’s sake between different crops.)


Overall, subsidy programs that drive farmers to produce as much as possible of the above crops take a serious toll on the global freshwater supply. In today’s world, the legacy of former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz’s mandate to “plant fence row to fence row” has reached new levels, where farmers have to scale up to levels of production never seen before–or get out of the business. In addition, there is also a disconnect between the feed and food sectors–a farmer in Iowa asks how to produce the largest yield possible, rather than asking why so much wheat is grown in the first place.[13] On one hand lies the Malthusian argument that we need to double food production by 2050 to feed a global population that will global reach nine billion, while on the other hand lies the argument that we must find a way to recognize environmental limits when designing policies that affect our economic and physical health.[14]


In basic terms, feed conversion is understood as the amount of feed consumed per “unit of animal” produced.[15] Two ways to increase conversion rates are to confine animals to smaller spaces and feed them more often. Overall, ruminants such as cattle, sheep, and goat are less efficient than non-ruminants such as pigs and chickens due to the lower quality of feed they consume. This means more water to produce more feed for more cows, of which over half on average (57%) is made of some of the crops mentioned above, including barley, maize, sorghum, wheat, peas, and soybeans.[16]

To combine the three key concepts of water footprint, crop cultivation, and feed conversion, dairy cattle are the least efficient feed converters with the highest average annual water footprint, followed by horse, beef cattle, pig, sheep, layer chicken, goat, and broiler chicken.[17] (Again, note that the numbers below calculate water usage in volume, rather than weight.)


Some entrepreneurs have discovered an alternative market for insects, particularly crickets, which have gained attention recently for their potential as efficient converters of feed to protein. As demonstrated below, cricket flour bar company Exo markets its products as appealing to both Paleo fanatics and environmentally minded consumers.



Thinking beyond bugs, some companies are even investing in lab-grown burgers, which a 2011 study by University of Oxford researchers argued would result in 96% lower water use than conventional meat. (Still, accessibility is a key factor here–the first in vitro burger made back in 2013 by Mark Post at Maastricht University came at a price of USD$325,000.) Yet again, the argument that scaling up is the best way to address a growing population surfaces here, as Atlantic Senior Editor Dr. James Hamblin states, “While the industry is divided on which protein source is best, it is in agreement that an animal meat alternative will be necessary to feed the rapidly expanding world population.”


The interconnectedness of food and the environment more generally, or meat and water more specifically, defies binaries. The issue is more nuanced than just going vegetarian, or just eating pasture-raised beef, but the bottom line is this: the production of crops for feed is the largest water guzzler of them all, and feed conversion efficiency is higher in industrial systems than in grazing systems.

So, what now?

One potential response might be creating a labeling system for meat products raised with good water stewardship. Another might be tinkering with some of the water footprint simulators from National Geographic, Water Footprint, or the Los Angeles Times, and sending them along to a friend or coworker. Another might be eating less meat–a reduction from current levels of meat consumption to recommended WHO guidelines is estimated to reduce the food-related global green water footprint by 23% and the global blue water footprint by 16%.[18]

Maybe someday we will all be eating test tube burgers because we have run out of water to grow the corn to feed the cows that give us cheap burgers. Maybe we will have found a viable way to convert saltwater to freshwater and we will have even more resources to raise livestock. Or maybe eating meat will become as taboo as smoking cigarettes inside restaurants.

Looking forward, there need to be more connections made between the water management, feed production, and livestock sectors. We should move to see meat as part of a system–one that reaches into our oceans, our arteries, and our pockets.


[1] Nicolette Hahn Niman, “Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production,” 69.

[2] Colin Sage, “The inter-connected challenges for food security from a food regimes perspective: Energy, climate and malconsumption,” 2.

[3] Smil, “Eating Meat: Evolution, Patterns and Consequences”

[4] Colin Sage, “Making and Un-Making meat: Cultural boundaries, environmental thresholds and dietary transgressions,” 4.

[5] Arjen Hoekstra, “Water for animal products: a blind spot in water policy,” 1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Hahn Niman, “Defending Beef,” 84.

[8] Hoekstra, “Water for animal products: a blind spot in water policy,” 1.

[9] Water Footprint Network, “What is a water footprint?”

[10] Mesfin Mekonnen and Arjen Hoekstra, “The green, blue and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products,” 39.

[11] Ibid., 4.

[12] Mekonnen and Hoekstra, “The green, blue and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products,” 22.

[13] Hoekstra, “Water for animal products: a blind spot in water policy,” 2.

[14] Sage, “The inter-connected challenges,” 2.

[15] Mekonnen and Hoekstra, “The green, blue and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products,” 11.

[16] Ibid., 21.

[17] Mekonnen and Hoekstra, “The green, blue and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products,” 23.

[18] Hoekstra, “Water for animal products,” 1.


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