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Understanding the water footprint of livestock products

The amount of water in your beef depends where the animal was reared. As such, blanket condemnation of livestock products because they consume a lot of water and are therefore environment unfriendly is unjustified. This was said by Arjen Hoekstra, professor at the University of Twente, the Netherlands.

Hoeskra was addressing researchers and friends of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in a ‘livestock livetak’ at the ILRI campus in Nairobi, on February 7, 2013.

‘In some cases, such as in drylands and some pockets of wetlands, livestock keeping is the only viable option of food production and the water footprint has a low opportunity cost’, Hoekstra said.

Using the scientific colour coding for water – blue, green and grey – Hoekstra said each product has a water footprint but livestock products carry a larger footprint than crops. In the colour coding, the blue water footprint refers to the volume of surface water and ground water consumed during production processes (i.e. evaporated or incorporated into the product), the green water footprint refers to the volume of rainwater consumed (i.e. evaporated or incorporated into the product), the grey water footprint refers to the volume of freshwater that is required to assimilate the load of pollutants and calculated as the volume of water that is required to maintain the water quality according to agreed water quality standards.

He recommended making more efficient use of rainwater as a key to reducing the water footprint of humanity.

Hoekstra, the creator of the water footprint concept, said that most freshwater problems are caused by an over-exploitation of blue water resources (ground and surface water). The trend towards increasing meat consumption in the world and towards an intensification of the livestock sector will lead to increasing water demand.

The use of excessive amounts of irrigation water in water-scarce regions can be reduced by increasing productivities in rain-fed agriculture in the parts of the world where water is more abundant. Overall water consumption can be reduced by lowering meat consumption.

He emphasized that water is a global resource and many countries import food because they do not have enough water resources of their own. As such, most of their water footprint is external, that is abroad; Europe as a continent has the largest external water footprint.

The water footprint of beef varies from country to country depending on the system used to rear the animals. Grazing systems use green water, which is local while mixed systems have a combination of a local green, blue and grey water footprint. Industrial and factory farming systems use partly imported feed, which sometimes comes from water-scarce places, where water has a high opportunity cost. The largest water footprint is in the processed feeds the animals are fed. Only 1% of the water is drunk by the animals.

He advises that governments seek to understand better the maximum sustainable water footprint in every basin so that they know how to allocate water. He observed that only 3.8 % of humanity’s water footprint is home water use while 96.2% of the water footprint is invisible to the ordinary consumer and related to the products bought in the market. This is roughly divided into 91.5% agricultural products while 4.7% is industrial products. Overall, 22% of the water footprint of consumers originates from outside their country.

The water footprint of a product refers to the volume of fresh water used to produce that product, summed up over the various steps of the production chain.

According to Hoekstra, sustainability criterion that helps reduce the water footprint of products would include keeping track of the water footprint of the different components of a product; knowing whether the various components are from water scarce areas and whether they go beyond the benchmark. Reporting and disclosure by industry should therefore be key as well as labeling of products and certification of business.

See the complete presentation:



More pictures from the seminar

2 thoughts on “Understanding the water footprint of livestock products

  1. Approach of ‘Water Foot Prints’ appreciated, however, there is need figures (quantitative information) on water requirement / use efficiency of different livestock species / breeds and production systems to draw attention of development planners. Having worked in rain fed – semiarid areas for decades I feel the need to consider this aspect and wonder if Dr. Hoekstra can provide references of such reports (I failed to get such data).

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