Thursday September 3rd, 2020 Water Blog

The water footprint of the cow in the field


I took a visit to a PhD student in the west this week.  I drove there in order to limit my interaction with others at the moment.  On the drive it’s wonderful to see the grassland fed cattle. There are Charolais, Shorthorn and Limousin as well as Friesian – these are the ones I recognise. The way agriculture is managed now in Ireland of course has changed. The intensity has increased so that the product is optimised. This is all driven by policy and market.

There is much talk about the impact of this growing intensification on carbon footprint and climate change.  Beef is getting a tough time because of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with production.

There is another impact of course and that relates to water footprint. Did you know that agriculture accounts for 92% of the freshwater footprint of humanity. About one third of this relates to animal products, relative to crop products.

Beef has a large water footprint and the system in which cattle are produced can make a substantial difference in the size of the footprint. While pasture-raised beef can be more sustainable, many assume that its water footprint is always smaller than that of industrially produced beef. This is not necessarily the case.

Meat, especially beef, has a large water footprint. About 15000 litres of water are used for a 1kg of beef produced. This includes pasture raised beef. What the water footprint tells us is the amount of water used in the various steps during production. We all need to eat, but we just need to think about resources used in the production of the food we eat.

Consider chocolate – a kg of chocolate uses about 24,000 litres of water, and for every cup of coffee, 140 litres of water are used. I had two cups today!

So, we just need to think about the resources used in what we consume every day and maybe consider more sustainable practices.

When I was 5 I learned a poem called “ The Friendly Cow” – something that has stuck with me into my 5th decade.

I hope that we can learn to be more sustainable in our practices,  and that we don’t drive beef production away altogether.


The Cow
Robert Louis Stevenson

The friendly cow all red and white,
I love with all my heart:
She gives me cream with all her might,
To eat with apple-tart.

She wanders lowing here and there,
And yet she cannot stray,
All in the pleasant open air,
The pleasant light of day;

And blown by all the winds that pass
And wet with all the showers,
She walks among the meadow grass
And eats the meadow flowers.

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