Water footprint of crop and animal products: a comparison

The projected increase in the production and consumption of animal products is likely to put further pressure on the globe’s freshwater resources. The size and characteristics of the water footprint vary across animal types and production systems.

The water footprint of meat from beef cattle (15 400 m 3 /ton as a global average) is much larger than the footprints of meat from sheep (10 400 m 3 /ton), pig (6000 m 3 /ton), goat (5 500 m 3 /ton) or chicken (4 300 m 3 /ton). The global average water footprint of chicken egg is 3 300 m 3 /ton, while the water footprint of cow milk amounts to 1000 m 3 /ton.

Per ton of product, animal products generally have a larger water footprint than crop products. The same is true when we look at the water footprint per calorie. The average water footprint per calorie for beef is twenty times larger than for cereals and starchy roots. When we look at the water requirements for protein, it has been found that the water footprint per gram of protein for milk, eggs and chicken meat is about 1.5 times larger than for pulses. For beef, the water footprint per gram of protein is 6 times larger than for pulses. In the case of fat, butter has a relatively small water footprint per gram of fat, even lower than for oil crops. All other animal products, however, have larger water footprints per gram of fat when compared to oil crops. From a freshwater resource perspective, it is more efficient to obtain calories, protein and fat through crop products than animal products.

The water footprint of some selected food products from crop and animal origin.

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Source: Mekonnen and Hoekstra (2010)

Global animal production requires about 2422 Gm 3 of water per year (87.2% green, 6.2% blue, 6.6% grey water). One third of this volume is for the beef cattle sector; another 19% for the dairy cattle sector. Most of the total volume of water (98%) refers to the water footprint of the feed for the animals. Drinking water for the animals, service water and feed mixing water account only for 1.1%, 0.8% and 0.03%, respectively.

Further reading

Hoekstra, A.Y. (2014) Water for animal products: a blind spot in water policy, Environmental Research Letters, 9(9): 091003.

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Gerbens-Leenes, P.W., Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2013) The water footprint of poultry, pork and beef: A comparative study in different countries and production systems, Water Resources and Industry, 1-2: 25-36.

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Hoekstra, A.Y. (2012) The hidden water resource use behind meat and dairy, Animal Frontiers, 2(2): 3-8.

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Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2012) A global assessment of the water footprint of farm animal products, Ecosystems, 15(3):401-405.

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Hoekstra, A.Y. (2011) Understanding the water footprint of factory farming, Farm Animal Voice, 180: 14-15.

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Ercin, A.E., Aldaya, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2012) The water footprint of soy milk and soy burger and equivalent animal products, Ecological Indicators, 18: 392−402.

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Vanham, D., Hoekstra, A.Y. and Bidoglio, G. (2013) Potential water saving through changes in European diets, Environment International, 61: 45-56.

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Vanham, D., Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2013) The water footprint of the EU for different diets, Ecological Indicators, 32: 1-8.

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