Courtesy of a Los Angeles billboard, but posted to social media by Kathy Freston, a vegan author, with over 8,500 likes and 21,500 shares. This is a mating of the old school version of a meme, the billboard, with the new school, social media! It claims that eating a burger uses the equivalent of months of household water use. Is this really true? How much water does it take to make a burger?
The billboard is put out by Got Drought?, which is an advocacy group that promotes a plant-based diet, and opposes eating meat. They primarily focus on the California drought and water issues related to diet.
According to their site, the source for the 1,300 gallon number comes from a 1978 study by Herb Schulbach, also cited here. This study claimed that it took 5,214 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef in California, or about 1,300 gallons for a 1/4 pound burger.
There are some issues with this statistic. First, it’s from 1978, almost 40 years old. It’s likely that farming has become much more efficient over that time, using less resources. It also only includes California beef. Since beef is a global commodity, it’s likely that most burger consumers, even in California, aren’t eating California beef, rather Nebraskan, Texan, Brazilian, etc. where the water use is different.
It turns out there are widely ranging estimates for how much water it takes to produce a pound of beef. Here are some popular sources frequently cited:
- 441 gallons/lb (110 gal/burger). From a 1993 UC Davis study. However, it was done for the Cattlemen’s Beef Association, so it’s not surprising to find it on the low end of the estimates.
- 1,799 gal/lb (450 gal/burger). From a 2010 Unesco study.
- 1,840 gal/lb (460 gal/burger). From the US Geological Survey’s estimate.
- 2,464 gal/lb (616 gal/burger). From a 1991 study by Marcia Kreith of UC Davis.
- 5,214 gal/lb (1,300 gal/burger). From Herb Schulbach’s 1978 study, used in the meme.
The estimates vary too widely to be certain of a value, but most media sources currently estimate much less than the 5,214 gallons cited in the billboard and the 1978 study. For example, the LA Times puts beef production at 1,700 gal/lb, the Huffington Post at 1,847 gal/lb, and even the biased VegSource (a vegan site) puts it at 2,500 gal/lb. Using the US Geological Survey’s estimate of 1,840 gallons, which corresponds with the Huffington Post’s data (not exactly a pro-beef source), that puts a burger at about 460 gallons of water, which is about 1/3 of what the billboard claims.
Context With Other Foods
1,840 gallons/lb to produce beef sure sounds like a lot, but it doesn’t really mean much without the context of other foods. Here’s a comparison with other common foods. Data from the LA Times.
- Pork- 660 gal/lb
- Chicken- 266 gal/lb
- Eggs- 188 gal/lb
- Chickpeas- 1,216 gal/lb
- Wheat Bread- 231 gal/lb
- Rice- 260 gal/lb
- Potatoes- 48 gal/lb
Fruits and Veggies:
- Mangoes- 456 gal/lb
- Asparagus- 325 gal/lb
- Broccoli- 59 gal/lb
- Apples- 53 gal/lb
- Kale- 36 gal/lb
- Almonds- 1,555 gal/lb without shell
- Walnuts- 1,518 gal/lb without shell
- Pistachios- 408 gal/lb with shell
- Milk- 88 gal/lb (66 gal/glass)
- Orange Juice- 66 gal/lb (50 gal/glass)
- Wine- 56 gal/lb (14 gal/glass)
- Beer- 31 gal/lb (24 gal/glass)
It’s important to keep in mind there’s a difference between a pound of beef and a pound of kale, calorie wise. A pound of beef has about 1,500 calories, while a pound of kale has only 223 calories. Therefore, it’s not fair to simply compare gallons per pound, as the two foods fulfill calorie needs at different rates. Beef is almost 7 times as dense as kale, calorie wise, so its seemingly low water rate of 36 gal/lb would need to be increased to about 245 gal/lb if we’re comparing apples to apples, so to speak. Beef is one of the most calorie-dense foods, so every item listed above would need to be adjusted with that in mind.
Still, it’s true beef uses more water to produce than almost any other food.
Household Water Use
The “Correct” Billboard
Given these findings, a more accurate billboard should read the following in comparison to eating a burger; don’t flush the toilet for 58 days (just under 2 months), or shower for 23 days. These numbers are less than 1/3 of what the original billboard suggests, although it might still be surprising. It should also come with the caveat that since you need to eat something, you’d need to calculate what you ate instead of the burger, and find out the difference in water savings, if any.
Does Water Use Matter?
It depends. Agriculture uses more water than any other activity. The vast majority of water used in beef production is for growing feed. If crops need to be irrigated to grow the corn or alfalfa, this will use additional water resources that could potentially be used elsewhere. If the cows are grass-fed, in a location where rainfall provides water for the pasture, much of the water use would be naturally occurring, not taken from other areas. Whether or not the water use is harmful would depend on each farm, and the point of view of the observer.
Water is not like electricity or other resources that can only be used once. The water used to produce beef (or kale) does not disappear, it gets reused indefinitely. For example, a single thunderstorm in Atlanta would deposit 2.28 billion gallons. There is virtually no limit to the amount of water we can use, except for the cost involved in transporting and cleaning it. It’s true that diverting water resources could have a negative impact on the environment, but that’s true of potentially any human activity. Whether it’s worth it depends on one’s perspective of what they value.
Should We Stop Eating Beef?
That’s the implication of this billboard, but let’s examine the logic. If our goal is to minimize our water use, we should only choose foods that use the minimum amount of water to provide our nutritional and calorie needs. This would mean a diet of eggs, potatoes, spinach, carrots and water would probably be best. Why should we eat blueberries when they use 4 times the water as strawberries? Asparagus takes almost 10 times the water as broccoli, how can that be justified? Clearly, eating almonds or walnuts is a huge no no. We’d certainly have to stop eating one of the most water-wasting food in existence, more than even beef, coming in at over 2,000 gallons/lb.; chocolate!
For most people, it’s exhausting to imagine living life this way, and it would be miserable to give up foods they enjoy. It’s important to be educated about the foods we eat, but ultimately it should be up to the consumer to make the choice. There are many factors people value differently in their food choices, including environmental, health, cost, convenience and taste. In a free society, they should weigh the information and make their own dietary choices.
Any way it’s examined, beef takes more water to produce than most other foods. This shouldn’t be too surprising, as many plants need to grow to feed a cow. The amount of water used is not as much as this billboard suggests, but it is significant. Whether or not this water use is harmful depends on the region, the farming methods, and the consumer’s preference for beef vs. water impact. It’s important to remember that due to the global nature of the food market, abstaining from a burger might make no difference whatsoever to one’s local water table, while eating foods like almonds and walnuts might, so claiming that cutting out burgers would make a difference in the California drought is dubious at best.
There are few things more important to us than water, but it’s unlikely that we’ll ever run out or have serious shortages. Even California, with its issues, is bordered by an ocean that could supply more water than it could ever dream of using. Currently, it’s not cost effective to desalinate it, due to the relative abundant and cheap fresh water sources, but if technology improves, or the cost of water goes up, the market will find a way to provide water if it’s left free to function.
The optimistic reality is there are more people than ever in the world, yet there’s never been more access to clean water for humans. Due to human innovation, 2.6 billion people have gained access to clean water since 1990, and considering 70% of the earth is covered in the stuff, that’s unlikely to change for the worse.