To put it in perspective, it could take more than 38 gallons of water, by some estimates, to produce one quarter-pound beef patty. That includes the water to grow all the feed like alfalfa and hay that the cattle themselves eat. In comparison, you need about five gallons of water to get the same amount of protein from tofu.
Dairy products like milk and cheese are even more water-intensive per gram of protein than beef because dairy cows require more energy to produce milk. They’re often fed alfalfa, in part because it’s higher in calories and protein. Some tree nuts like almonds can use a relatively large amount of water as well.
Water footprint estimates can vary widely depending on the conditions that the livestock are raised in, or the farming practices and technology used. But, in general, beef and dairy are some of the most water-intensive foods we consume. Raising cattle also contributes relatively more greenhouse gas emissions, particularly methane, than most other food.
And, on average, Americans eat a lot of beef and dairy.
Thirty-seven percent of the water used in the Colorado River basin goes toward growing alfalfa and hay used largely to feed dairy cattle. That’s triple the water that residents in the region use to water lawns, take showers and wash clothes. Alfalfa is a thirsty crop, in part because of its lengthy growing season that allows for multiple harvests per year.
It’s an export, too. Researchers estimated in the 2020 study that 10 to 12 percent of the irrigated cattle-feed crops grown in the United States are exported, and about 10 percent of beef is exported.