How Much Water Does it Take to Make a Burger?


How much water does it take to make a burger?

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.

Better Sources?

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)

More Context

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 EPA considers a standard toilet to use 1.6 gal/flush, and the average person flushes 5 times a day.  That’s 8 gallons of water per day.


The EPA considers a standard shower head to use 2.5 gal/min.  At an average shower time of 8.2 minutes (be honest ladies!), the average person will use 20.5 gallons, assuming one shower per day.

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.

A more accurate estimate of water to produce a burger

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.


Desalination: an endless supply of potential water.

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.

4 Comments on "How Much Water Does it Take to Make a Burger?"

  1. You left out an important study: David Pimentel. 2001. “Environmental Sustainability and Integrity in the Agriculture Sector.” Ecological Integrity: Integrating Environment, Conservation and Health. This study claims the water footprint of beef is up to 12,008 per pound, much more than our billboard claims. That huge water footprint is primarily due to the tremendous amount of water needed to grow the grass, forage and feed that a beef steer eats over its lifetime, plus water for drinking, cleaning and processing their slaughter. We (Got Drought?) feel we were being conservative by using the 5,214 number (as cited below in a list of studies, some of which you failed to mention) and would like to explain why.

    As one can deduct from this article, a decades-long cold war in the agricultural and natural resource arenas has pitted Big Ag supporters against sustainable farmers, and environmentalists and various academics against one another, each armed with their own numbers and studies. To get an idea of the wide range of numbers presented as the true water footprint of beef, see the partial list below:
    Table 1. Water required to produce one pound (1 lb.) of boneless, conventionally raised beef
    Gallons of Water Source (individual or organization)
    441 Jim Oltjen et al. 1993. “Estimation of the water requirement for beef production in the United States.” Journal of Animal Science. (UC-Davis professor at the behest of National Cattlemen’s Beef Association)
    840 Alan Durning. 1991. “Taking Stock: Animal Farming and the Environment.” Worldwatch Paper #103. (Calculations based on Oltjen’s figures.)
    1,799 Mekonnen and Hoekstra. 2010. “The green, blue and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products.” Water Footprint Network.
    2,464 Marcia Kreith. 1991. “Water inputs in California food production.” Water Education Foundation.
    5,214 Herb Schulbach et al. 1978. Soil and Water. no. 38, fall 1978.
    12,008 David Pimentel. 2001. “Environmental Sustainability and Integrity in the Agriculture Sector.” Ecological Integrity: Integrating Environment, Conservation and Health.

    Why can’t a consensus around a definitive, average water footprint of beef statistic be reached?

    The problem rests on two fundamental issues: 1 ) A significant difference in research methods; and 2 ) The many variables and differences involved in raising and producing beef (this is true whether they be produced within the conventional, organic or grass-fed systems). The focus here is on conventional, or industrial, beef production, since the vast majority of beef consumed in the U.S. comes from industrial production.

    By far, the largest component of beef’s water footprint is the huge volume of virtual water consumed by cattle through their feed, in this case both forage and grain. There are three primary factors associated with feeding practices and techniques that contribute to the water footprint calculation:

    1. Since beef cattle eat such massive quantities of feed and are quite inefficient in converting that feed to meat (relative to a chicken or pig, for instance) it raises the water footprint. More feed = more water.

    2. The type of feed consumed contains more or less water because grains contain much more water than “roughage” or forage. Also, the more energy concentrated in the food (corn kernel vs. corn husk), the more water that’s embedded in the feed.

    3. Grain grown in more arid locales like the Western United States (like California) depend more on irrigated fields compared to wetter regions like the Great Lakes and the East. Cattle feed produced from regions that have higher precipitation levels relies less on irrigation and, therefore, has a lower water footprint.

    The crop that consumes the most water in California is alfalfa, which is largely grown as feed for cattle and dairy cows. Pasture grown for grazing livestock is the third-largest water user. That means keeping cows fat consumes 2.7 trillion gallons of water a year. Alfalfa and pasture are also the second- and third-most-water-intensive crops in California because they require irrigation to be applied at depths of between three-and-half feet and five-and-a-half feet, according to the Pacific Institute’s calculations. (Almonds and pistachios are the fourth-most-water-intensive crops.) Alfalfa is both water-intensive and comparatively unproductive, generating only $175 for every acre-foot. This is the reason why we feel the water footprint of beef in California is much higher than the national average.

    That being said, we do not want to diminish the impact that animal agriculture has on our water supply in general: one-third of the water footprint from worldwide agriculture comes from the production of animal products, and one-third of that footprint is from beef, according to a report from the Institute for Water Education. Industrial livestock production is also known to have significant adverse impacts on water quality. Unfortunately, this damage is not factored into any water footprint analysis model for animal production; this omission remains a serious hindrance to the creation of a truly comprehensive life cycle analysis.

    In addition, the United States maintains more than 9 billion livestock, which consume about seven times as much grain as the entire U.S. population. Livestock now uses 30% of all land worldwide and are causing deforestation, particularly in the Amazon, where 70% of forests are now used for grazing.

    So, besides displacing land that could be used to grow food for humans, “more than half of U.S. grain and nearly 40% of world grain is being fed to livestock rather than being consumed directly by humans,” according to David Pimentel, professor of ecology in Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

    It also takes significantly more energy to produce a unit of food higher on the food chain than a plant-based diet. To produce a quarter-pound burger with cheese takes 26 ounces of petroleum and leaves a 13-pound carbon footprint. This is equivalent to burning 7 pounds of coal, according to author and journalist Michael Pollan. Not to mention that the global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined and is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction.

    In the end, the actual number is not what’s important. The bottom line is that it takes a lot of water to produce beef, especially when just a fraction of that water can be used to produce much more food with much lower water footprints.

  2. The USGS estimates that it takes 4,000 to 18,000 gallons of water to produce a juicy hamburger, depending on conditions that cows are raised in.

    • The link you provided uses a Business Insider blog post as a reference. When the source for that is investigated, it just links to the USGS site, with no reference to 4,00-18000 gallons or any other number. Check it out for yourself. My investigation shows the USGS estimates 460 gallons for a 1/4 lb burger on their calculation site. The link is here:

      If you can provide a legitimate link that quotes 4,000-18,000 I’ll consider it. However, that’s a ridiculously large window for an estimate. You might as well say you have no idea how much water it takes.

      • The USGS did report that a hamburger took between 4,000 – 8,000 gallons of water on their website until it was blasted by the cattle industry to change it (it has been cited in the Wall Street Journal and in several other publications). The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association wants people to think that beef production is environmentally benign, so they chose the lowest estimate. Using a national average obscures the differences in environmental impact caused both by geography and production systems. In short, this is much more complicated than you might think.

        According to the Pacific Institute: “These kinds of data are fraught with problems and uncertainties, and users should be extremely careful about using them for other than the most simple comparisons. When we can, we like to use ranges to try to bracket many of the uncertainties, but other sources rarely mention uncertainties or provide ranges of estimates. For example, the Water Footprint reports that 15,500 kg of water are required to produce beef, but work from the Pacific Institute reports a range of 15,000 to over 70,000 depending on diet, climate, the amount of product from each cow, and other variables. Similarly, the Water Footprint reports single estimates for the production of a range of vegetable and feed crops, but actual water requirements will vary dramatically with climate, soils, irrigation methods, and crop genetics. “

        It is not surprising that the beef industry promotes a study that determined, using highly suspect calculations, that only 441 gallons of water are required to produce a pound of beef. The cattlemen’s study applied liberal deductions from water actually used, reasoning that water was evaporated at points during the process, or was “returned” to the water table after being used to grow plant feed, or was returned to the water table via urea and excrement from cows. Thus, study authors reasoned these waters were not “lost” but “recycled” and therefore could be subtracted from gross amount of water actually used in beef production. Of course, evaporation and cow dung don’t go very far in replenishing water pumped from aquifers that took thousands of years to fill. It’s interesting to consider that if the same fuzzy math were applied to calculating how much water it takes to grow vegetables, potatoes would probably only require about 2 gallons of water per pound.

        This study was also done in 1991 before there was a water footprint concept was developed, the conceptual framework that includes such components as virtual water and blue, green and grey water footprints. Consequently, researchers had to devise their own methods. Because there was no water footprint framework, there was no standard methodology for accounting, a process that is even now still underway. Again, quoting the Pacific Institute: “There are very important uncertainties and limitations to these data, and we expect that improvements in measurement and reporting will continue over the next several years.”

        Since then there have been many studies, especially Pimentel’s “Ecological Integrity: Integrating Environment, Conservation and Health” which claims the number is much higher (12,008). Pimentel is a celebrated professor of ecology and agricultural science at Cornell University, who has published over 500 scientific articles, 20 books and has served on many national and government organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences; President’s Science Advisory Council; U.S. Department of Agriculture; U.S. Department of Energy; U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare; Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress; and the U.S. State Department.

        Among the many very appealing facets of Professor Pimentel is that he is reasonably accessible and willing to discuss his methods, his sources of data, and how he or his learned colleagues came up with various calculations. This stands in stark contrast to the “corporate” scientists — those who appear to work chiefly to enhance corporate coffers by obfuscating issues, muddying waters and downplaying real risks — who are often unreachable or unwilling to comment or clarify, or even defend their questionable work.

        Professor Pimentel explained of his calculations that:
        “… the data we had indicated that a beef animal consumed 100 kg of hay and 4 kg of grain per 1 kg of beef produced. Using the basic rule that it takes about 1,000 liters of water to produce 1 kg of hay and grain, thus about 100,000 liters were required to produce the 1 kg of beef.” (Note that the figures for producing a pound
        of beef represent water which is used over a 2-plus year period, since food cattle are generally slaughtered prior to 2-years-old, dairy cattle may live 4 years before being turned into burgers, and range cattle live to 5 or 6.)

        Ironically, both of these estimates may be roughly valid, given they are measuring different things. For example, if the water they are measuring comes directly from rainfall, then how it acts in the environment is not changed that much by the fact it is helping food for cattle to grow, especially if the food is well managed pasture, not treated with fertilizers or pesticides. If the water is irrigation water, however, then its use will have many more environmental impacts.

        Much of the forage and grain fed to beef produced in the Western US is grown using irrigation. Some of this irrigation water is pumped from aquifers at unsustainable rates. Some is diverted from river systems, altering aquatic communities and reducing the water available for other uses. About 85% of the water taken from the Colorado River in California, Arizona, and Nevada is used for agricultural purposes. Long before the Colorado River reaches its outlet to the ocean in Mexico, it has completely dried up, because its natural flow has been diverted for agricultural use. Some of the water withdrawn goes to fruit and vegetable production, but livestock production is a major water user.

        How the irrigation is handled matters a lot. For the environment it matters how much water is withdrawn from natural water sources and how efficiently the water is used. For example, if half the water is lost in transport (not uncommon), then actually double the amount of water used for irrigation had to be taken away from a river or stream. If the irrigation water is applied in the same small watershed that it was taken from, at least some of it will be returned to the river or stream. If it is applied in a different watershed, all the water is lost to the original water source. It also matters for social reasons. For example if upstream users take all the water they want, there may be none left for downstream users (We are now seeing this in California as whole cities run out of water due to animal agriculture.)

        The amount of water used in beef production is important when it has negative impacts on the environment or on access to water for other uses. Of course, livestock production can damage the environment in other ways than water use. Even using a more conservative estimate, beef is an intensive water user compared to other foods. However, where and how the beef is raised can make an important difference in how much water it uses, and this is the point of this project, which I feel you are missing. “Got Drought?” is trying to get people to see the reality of our current food practices and how they are leading the world towards a catastrophic future. I’d like to ask you what you are doing about this problem other than criticizing those who are trying to make a difference.

        One more comment about desalination: here is a summary of a MIT Tech article that explains why it is too expensive and too environmentally damaging to be a sustainable solution. The fact remains that less than 1% of all the water in the world is available to us as fresh water (97% is salty and 2.1 is locked up in polar ice caps) and most of that water is being used by an unsustainable, environmentally damaging industry. We need to conserve our water and not count on getting bailed out by science. As my husband, a civil/environmental engineer and hydrogeologist with over 16 years of experience in water resources, says, “We can’t engineer our way out of this one.”

        From MIT Tech:
        Hundreds of desalination plants are planned or under way worldwide because fresh water is increasingly precious. According to a report from the International Food Policy Research Institute, more than half the world’s population will be at risk of water shortages by 2050 if current trends continue.

        In drought-ridden California, a $1 billion plant at Carlsbad, north of San Diego, will produce 54 million gallons of fresh water a day. But these plants are a devil’s bargain; they use power from plants that, in most cases, emit greenhouse gases, ultimately worsening the problem of drought. Saudi Arabia, for instance, uses around 300,000 barrels of oil every day to desalinate seawater, providing some 60 percent of its fresh water supply. That’s not sustainable.

        Unfortunately, solar-powered desalination is expensive: as much as three times the cost of water from grid-powered plants, according to a World Bank report. Desalination plants need to run 24 hours a day, requiring expensive battery packs to supplement solar power when the sun’s not shining. Thanks to increased efficiency and the falling price of solar power, costs are expected to fall rapidly: from more than $50 per 1,000 gallons today, in the Middle East, to half of that by midcentury. But that’s still likely too much to make solar-powered desalination economically viable without government subsidies, even in places such as the Middle East that are optimal for solar power.

        Another reason it’s so expensive is that big solar arrays need a lot of space. That means, though, that solar-powered desalination could be more economical in small settings. For example, in California’s drought-ridden Central Valley, the Water Technology Research Center at UCLA is building several solar-powered facilities that will desalinate brackish agricultural wastewater for towns that lack sufficient supplies of clean water. These facilities “are small enough for solar energy usage,” says UCLA professor Yoram Cohen, who heads the project. “You couldn’t do this in Carlsbad because real estate is too expensive.”

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