What’s the Water Footprint of Your Diet?

Sugar cane crops at sunset in Tanzania

Sugar cane crops at sunset in Tanzania. (© Benjamin Drummond)

I have a confession: I don’t eat steak. That makes me a bit of an oddity amongst friends and family, with the average American consumption of beef at around 57 pounds in 2011. In truth, I don’t eat steak largely because I just don’t like the taste. However, there are also some very real environmental reasons why it makes sense to think carefully about what we eat.

Here at the World Water Week meetings in Stockholm, everyone is talking about the inextricable links between fresh water and food (the theme of this year’s conference). In fact, every bite of food we eat has a virtual water footprint.

In the case of steak, some estimate it takes roughly 1,850 gallons of water to bring a piece of steak to your plate. In comparison, it takes about 81 gallons of water to create a drumstick of chicken — which I do eat! (Learn more about the water footprint of your food in this report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (PDF–2.76 MB)).

So why does it take so much water to produce a steak? Part of it has to do with what cows eat. In addition to the water they drink, cows also consume water indirectly through their diet — through the water it takes to grow grass, corn or soy feed. That’s one reason why CI partners with a number of agribusiness and food companies on their commodity sourcing standards, which typically address a range of environmental and social issues, including water conservation. One example of this work is our partnership with Nestlé to develop Responsible Sourcing Guidelines (RSGs) for soy, intended to address a number of environmental impact areas in the company’s supply chain.

Back to steak: where the cow is raised and where its food comes from are also important factors. In a complex interaction between production system (i.e., industrial versus grazing) and food source (i.e., grass versus soy or corn), a cow raised in relatively water-abundant Brazil may have a larger water footprint than the water-scarce western United States. However, in relative terms the impacts of cattle-raising on water resources may be felt more acutely in this arid U.S. region, especially in light of this year’s record droughts, which have lead to dramatic crop and livestock losses.

Water challenges are very location specific. This is why CI encourages corporate partners to use tools to better understand their water risks when it comes where they operate and source. These tools will be even more important in the future, as climate change makes water availability increasingly unpredictable.

Today at World Water Week, CI is convening a session with partners focused on adapting to doing business in a changing climate. Building resilient agricultural supply chains will be necessary not only for business to succeed, but also to ensure that our planet can provide for generations to come.

Marielle Canter Weikel

Marielle Canter Weikel

Marielle Canter Weikel is the director of corporate freshwater strategies in CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business. To learn more about water use issues, check out the Water Footprint Network, an international learning community in which CI is a member.

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