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January 13, 2011

Price of One Hamburger Revisited

I have recently been under fire about a popular post that I wrote titled "The True Price of One Hamburger."  Particularly the part where I mention: "It takes 2500 gallons of water to produce one pound of hamburger."  Some people apparently do not believe this.  As a matter of fact, I was told to "check my math" because that amount of water would obviously be for tons of beef!

So, I checked my math. 

But I didn't do it alone.  I backed up my research with several other environmental professionals:
John Robbins - founder of EarthSave.
David Pimentel - Professor of Ecology and Agricultural Science at Cornell University.
Laura Westra - Professor of Environmental Studies at Sarah Lawrence College.
Reed Noss - President of the Society for Conservation Biology.

And we all agreed that I was wrong!  It does not take 2500 gallons of water to produce one pound of hamburger....

It takes 12,009 GALLONS to produce one pound of beef!  Here's the breakdown:

Potatoes  60 gallons/pound
Wheat  108 gallons/pound
Corn  168 gallons/pound
Rice  229 gallons/pound
Soybeans  240 gallons/pound
Beef  12,009 gallons/pound

Please note that the figures for producing a pound of beef represent water used over a 2+ year period, as food cattle are generally slaughtered before they are 2-years-old.  Dairy cattle may live 4 years before being turned into burgers, and range cattle live to 5 or 6. 

As is clearly illustrated by these figures, it takes roughly 200 times the water to grow a pound of beef than to grow a pound of potatoes. 

Professor Pimentel explained it best, "The data we had indicated that a beef animal consumed 100kg of hay and 4kg of grain per 1kg of beef produced.  Using the basic rule that it takes about 1000 liters of water to produce 1kg of hay and grain, thus about 100,000 liters were required to produce the 1 kg of beef." 

According to the USDA, one pound of ground lean beef has 1197.5 calories and one pound of potatoes contains 288 calories.  To get roughly the same number of calories from potatoes as you do from a pound of beef, you would need 4.15 pound of potatoes.  So that's 249 gallons of water for 4.15 pounds of potatoes versus 12,009 gallons of water for the pound of beef - in order to produce the same number of calories.  In short, it takes nearly 50 times more waer to produce a calorie from beef than it does from potatoes. 

So, now that I have "checked my math"...

Is raising cattle for beef an efficient and fair way to feed the world?


  1. Quite simply we cannot feed the World population in the same way that the richer countries expect to eat.

    The richer countries cannot expect to eat as they are doing so at the expense of poorer countries.

    Everyone who eats non sustainably will have to change their diet in the not too distant future. The environment demands it.

  2. And it's amazing how many people don't realize this.
    If only the richer world population could sit down for a group meeting, talk about the facts, watch a video of a meat processing plant, and go home with pamphlet as a reference - then we might get to where we need faster.
    But since that can't happen, we blog... and we do whatever else we can to promote vegetarianism.



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