Worried about water? Reduce your meat intake.

I was really moved — and chilled — by this article called Our Water-Guzzling Food Factory that talks about the amount of water required to produce beef (and chicken and eggs and ZOMG walnuts for pete’s sake WTF we are all doomed why did I ever have children send help). 

The crisis in California is a harbinger of water scarcity in much of the world. And while we associate extravagant water use with swimming pools and verdant lawns, the biggest consumer, by far, is agriculture. In California, 80 percent of water used by humans goes to farming and ranching.
That’s where that hamburger patty comes in.

I grew up on a sheep and cherry farm near Yamhill, Ore. I worked for a year for the Future Farmers of America, and I still spend time every year on our family farm. But while I prize America’s rural heritage, let’s be blunt: It’s time for a fundamental rethinking of America’s food factory.

A mandarin orange consumes 14 gallons of water. A head of lettuce, 12 gallons. A bunch of grapes, 24 gallons. One single walnut, 2 gallons.

Animal products use even more water, mostly because of the need to raise grain or hay to feed the animals. Plant material converts quite inefficiently into animal protein.

So a single egg takes 53 gallons of water to produce. A pound of chicken, 468 gallons. A gallon of milk, 880 gallons. And a pound of beef, 1,800 gallons of water. (Of course, these figures are all approximate, and estimates differ. These are based on data from the Pacific Institute and National Geographic.)

It’s not like we eat beef very often anymore, but we do hit the chicken and fish pretty hard around here. Guess it’s time to start building more meatless nights into the weekly meal plan. 


  1. Well, while it may take that much water to pass through the plants and animals, it’s not like the water is consumed or tarnished and needs to get processed at a wastewater treatment plant. Water given to animals comes out the other end and waters the plants that it lands on, and water applied to plants partially evaporates (coming back as clouds) and drains down into subterranean aquifers. ‘consuming’ water in a residence from showers and toilet flushes needs to get processed far more than water sprayed on a field.

    By all means, definitely, we can save water by curtailing our meat intake, but the water ‘consumed’ to that end is different than the water ‘consumed’ in a household.

    One of the best books I could recommend for cutting / minimizing meat and still having tremendously solid dietary choices is the More With Less cookbook — http://smile.amazon.com/More-Less-Cookbook-World-Community/dp/083619103X/


    1. Some water given to animals comes out the other end to water the plants, but some also ends up in human bodies where it will eventually be processed in wastewater treatments, etc. And I do agree that there is a difference between household and agricultural water consumption, but I think a lot of people don’t realize — I know I don’t regularly think about this, at least, but maybe everyone else does? — how much more than just the actual foodstuff is wasted when it is thrown out or decomposes in your vegetable crisper. 🙂

      Also, funny coincidence: I grew up on the More With Less Cookbook! Many a night was spent at my childhood dinner table, refusing to eat some “weird” food that my mom was trying to inflict on us, in the 70s. Honey-baked lentils is still one of my big-time comfort foods. I can eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I grew up on their High Protein Cottage Cheese pancakes! 🙂


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