Beef or Chicken?

Hamburger... (Photo source Richard Gibbard from

...Or McChicken? (Photo source Cefaclor).

I began to feel guilty after posting my last blog, as people who had read my blog and calculated their own water footprint kept getting significantly lower values than me. Do my do my friends have dubious hygiene practices I asked myself, or am I just a water criminal?

 Then I realized that all these people did have something that set them apart from me. They were vegetarians.

What it really comes down to is that farming is a very water intensive industry, and greatly contributes to global water use. There is so much that can be discussed on this issue that it could almost be its own blog, but today I’ll just pick meat production and focus on that.

It seems that often when I eat out, I am asked to choose between of beef or chicken (here I’m thinking burgers, nachos, sandwiches, and even the fajitas I had today for lunch). So I decided to compare the water input into each of these meats and see if there was a better option for all those confirmed carnivores out there.

Thankfully, all the hard work had been done for me. The article “A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products” provided plenty of information.

So where does the water go?

The vast majority of the water input into our meat is through feed for animals. This includes that water used to produce the various feed components, and the water required to mix the feed. Other water costs are the amount of water needed by animals as drinking water (a cow will drink up to 10% of its body weight per day!), and the service water needed to clean and maintain the environment. However, this study did not calculate the journey of your beef from the farm to the lovely juicy steak on your plate.

Blue Green or Grey…

Water footprints are divided into three categories, blue green or grey.

Blue water is surface and ground water consumed, and then lost to the system via evaporation. Green water is rainwater consumed, while grey water is the amount of fresh water required to assimilate pollutants released in the process. In this study, only the effect of nitrogen fertilization has been taken into account, so in reality, the grey water impact is likely to be higher, with effects of animal wastes playing a large part.

There is some bad news for NZ. Grazing systems actually require more water than mixed or industrial systems (indoors rather than outdoors, feeding concentrate rather than roughage).

However, industrial beef systems use more blue and grey water, while grazing uses far more green water. But… this varies from country to country, with US cattle grazing largely on maize (which is irrigated and fertilized) resulting in a higher blue and grey water proportion than a system where cattle graze on grass (eg. NZ).

In terms of chicken farming, it appears that industrial farming (think cage) unfortunately has a smaller blue and grey water foot print than grazing (aka free range) systems.

The bright side for us though is that water pollution and problems are generally due to blue water scarcity and water pollution, which are far more of a problem in industrial farming systems (such as the US) than grazing systems such as we have in NZ. However, demand for meat is rising, and this will result in intensification of farming systems, leading to more use of blue and grey water, rather than more renewable green water.

So… what to choose?

Water footprint per ton (m3/ton)

Green Blue Grey Total
Chicken  3,545 313 467 4,325
Pig 4,907 459 622 5,988
Sheep/goat 8,253 457 53 8,763
Beef 14,414 550 451 15,415

I’ll leave the final choice up to you, but as for me the obvious answer is chicken.

Hopefully now we will all be feeling a little better informed when it comes to deciding what kind of burger to choose next time you feel like McDonalds. However, there are many other considerations that complicate the matter, including animal welfare, health, hormones, ethics and more.

To conclude today, I’ll leave you with this fact…

37% of American food related foot print is made up from meat. If all dietary meat was replaced with crop products, there would be a 30% reduction in the water foot print of the average America.

For all us carnivores out there, that really is something worth pondering.



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2 responses to “Beef or Chicken?

  1. SFH

    Well I am surely not a vegetarian! But grains, especially rice, also take a lot of water to produce, and if you don’t eat them then your number goes down a lot.

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