Cows on the countryside

    Published: June 1, 2015

    Agriculture’s Demands on Water

    California’s drought illustrates the need to conserve water at all levels, from municipal use to agriculture and industry. Many Californians objected to municipal water restrictions when the state exempted most agricultural production from the new limitations. Considering 80% of water drawn in California goes to agriculture, it seemed unfair that while municipal residents have their water use severely restricted, farmers continue to use water without consequences.

    While it’s certainly true that the agricultural industry needs to improve its water consumption, it can’t be denied that food production requires water, in often dizzying amounts. The Water Footprint Network calculates the direct and indirect amount of water required to produce different food products, and the results are surprising (and often depressingly high). For instance, here’s the water cost of common proteins:

    • 8oz of beef requires 850 gallons of water
    • 80z of chicken requires 132.9 gallons
    • 8oz of pork requires 330 gallons
    • 8oz of eggs requires 93.8 gallons
    • 8oz of lamb requires 677.4 gallons
    • 8oz of lentils requires 570.2 gallons
    • 8oz of chickpeas requires 608.6 gallons.

    As you can see, beef leads the field when it comes to water consumption. As of 2013, California was home to about 610,000 beef cattle. A beef cow produces about 430 pounds of meat, or 2,590 ounces. Presuming 850 gallons per eight ounces of beef means every beef cow requires 274,125 gallons of water for meat production.

    People assume that fruits, grains, and vegetables consume much less water than meats, and that’s generally the case. Lentils and chickpeas, however, still consume more water than the equivalent serving of eggs, chicken, or pork. (That’s not to say some meat products are more environmentally sustainable than lentils and chickpeas—the Water Footprint Network only calculates water use, not feed, fertilizers and other environmental factors).

    Starch products have a much lower water footprint than meats, as you can see below. Note, however, that potatoes blow the other starches out of the water (pardon the pun) when calculating food yield to gallons of water. If you’re concerned with your water consumption, you might want to consider more potatoes and less pasta products:

    • 6oz of pasta requires 99.6 gallons
    • 6oz of potatoes requires 17.9 gallons
    • 6oz of rice requires 97.6 gallons
    • 6oz of wheat bread requires 97.6 gallons

    Potatoes probably have a lower water footprint because we eat the plant’s root. The other starches are made from grain seeds, which make up only a small percent of the plant’s total body mass. The rest of the plant’s body, however, still requires water, driving up the yield-to-water ratio.

    The same trend can be seen in fruits and vegetables. Produce that harvests most of the plant—such as broccoli and carrots, consumes less water than produce harvested from trees and vines.

    • 8oz of apples requires 27.7 gallons
    • 8oz of broccoli requires 19.5 gallons
    • 8oz of carrots requires 7.4 gallons
    • 8oz of grapes consumes 25 gallons
    • 80x of lettuce requires 6.8 gallons
    • 8oz of strawberries requires 9.9 gallons

    Reducing your own water use goes much further than installing water-conserving showerheads or water softener alternatives with salt free technology. Every trip to the grocery store is an opportunity to choose water-economical foods over water-hungry products. By voting with our grocery money, we encourage farmers and manufacturers to increase water conservation efforts and provide more low-water produce.