Rivers of Beef

You know the water crisis has got really serious when The Courier-Mail runs a piece which starts with the suggestion that “we must ban beer and Coke and stop eating beef.”The author of the article, Des Houghton, isn’t really being serious, but he does go on to point out just how water intensive meat production is, taking 55 000 litres to produce a kilogram of beef. Indeed, according to CSIRO water expert, Professor Wayne Meyer, this figure can go as high as 100 000 litres in places where evaporation is highest.

Given how water conscious we have supposedly become, it’s amazing how little awareness there is of them. Maybe it’s because pointing out facts like these about any meat product runs the risk of receiving a pounding from  Sam Kekovich’s political correctness police.

As the water crisis has got worse, cotton and rice growing have tended to draw more and more criticism as water-greedy forms of agriculture.  This is understandable to some extent, as they both consume large amounts of water. However, it’s puzzled me that while cotton and rice have come under public pressure, meat and dairy production, which can be even more water intensive, seem to largely escape this type of public censure. 

Mind you, I tend to think that just picking on a specific crop as the ‘bad guy’ is not really the best way to solve the problem of reducing the environmental impact of agricultural production.  If we could get water for agricultural and industry purposes priced closer to its real value, water extraction and allocation licences limited to environmentally sustainable levels and also have greenhouse impacts costed in (none of which occurs at the moment and is much easier said than done), then the market would probably do a reasonable job at ensuring the most efficient produce prospered.

Oh, and if you were wondering about the beer and Coke, apparently it takes four litres of water to produce one litre of XXXX, and even one litre of Coke takes one and a half litres of water to produce. According to The Courier-Mail, the Coca-Cola factory at Richlands is one of Brisbane’s top 10 water users. I’m not sure market forces would work with Coke somehow, as you could raise the price of water one hundredfold and they’d probably still make a profit selling it for the same price they are now, although they might have to reduce their advertising budget by 0.1% to cover the extra cost.

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  1. There seems to be the inference in the Courier Mail piece and hence in your post that the agricultural industry as a whole is sucking all its water from the water that would otherwise be designated for a commercial supply. Surely this isn’t the case. Yes, there are farmers who draw water from river systems, but there are also many who rely solely on rainfall.

    Also, the Courier Mail article states:
    “Professor Meyer says the amounts of water required to raise cattle could be as high as 100,000 litres in some places where evaporation is highest.”

    Is ‘raising cattle’ the same as ‘producing 1kg of beef’? 100,000 litres to ‘raise cattle’ strikes me as a rather vague measurement. Is Prof Meyer referring to the amount of water to raise one cow?

    In your post, you imply that Prof Meyer is referring to the amount of water required to produce 1kg of beef. Is this really what he is saying?

  2. Can I applaud Phillip’s post?
    One eats beef, whereas cotton is non digestible. How much of something like Cubbie Creek is going to actually be more about tax and grants rorting, opposite to what the balance sheets indicate.
    I don’t fancy starving to death to make some merchant banker as rich as God even richer.

  3. I remember Ronan Lee, MP for Indooroopilly, made comments in Queensland Parliament last year suggesting families decrease their meat intake. At the time, his comments were scoffed at.

  4. I’m not sure market forces would work with Coke somehow, as you could raise the price of water one hundredfold and they’d probably still make a profit selling it for the same price they are now, although they might have to reduce their advertising budget by 0.1% to cover the extra cost.

    Oops. You just let the real agenda slipm Andrew. If the point is to reduce water reduce, all you need to do is to increase the price.

    But what you really want is to reduce the profits of Coca-Cola, as the above quotation makes perfectly clear.

    Consider the cat out of the bag. Don’t bother editing the post either, I have already saved it.

  5. Indeed there would appear to be an agenda here, although the one you refer to yobbo is probably the second and permanet agenda of envy, as opposed to the real one the vegie agenda.

    That persumably also applies to the good professor, as the reality, accroding to the NSW Depatment of Natural Resource, themselves beholden to an agneda, but in the absence of any other “officla” data all I have to work with, is that the water required per head per annum for a dry beef or dairy animla is 15,000 litres, or 41 litres per day (which seems extraordinary but there it is).

    Given the average weight of beef animal per sale lot is around 600kg and about 30% ends up as usable beef. Then lets say about 200 kilos of beef needs 15,000 littrses of water per annum – or 75 litres per kilo. Lets again assume on the high side from birth to sale a period of 10 years (more likley 5) that equates to 750 litres per kilo.

    By way of contrast a sewered household requires 175 litres per day per person (accordiong to them). So get rid of people before the poor cows.

    The article referred to probalby intensd to measn the total water use from farm to table and all the processing in between.

  6. I really do not understand how beef cattle are supposed to consume so much water. My parents are beef producers in NE Victoria. They rely virtually entirely on natural rainfall to produce their animals, with a small groundwater licence used intermittently for stock water, never for pastures. I suspect the figures used by some academic calculations are worst case scenarios or have a lot of erroneous assumptions built in.

    In other words, don’t believe everything you read.

  7. Phillip:

    I’m only going off the quote from the Courier-Mail. I don’t know if it’s a full life cycle assessment or not.

    Yobbo: You’ve drawn a very long bow there. I don’t dispute that some on the ‘green left’ are basically anti-corporate and anti-profit, but you really shouldn’t take narrow prejudices and stereotypes and apply them to everyone else just because you don’t like the facts that are presented.

    It was the multi-national hating, profit loathing Murodch owned Courier-Mail which brought up Coke and their water usage, not me.

    Given my post includes an argument in favour of using price signals and market forces rather than just general public tarring and feathering of particular industries, I can’t see how you can suggest I’m being anti-profit or anti-corporate (as you do back on your own site.)

    It’s simply a statement of fact that increasing water price would not impact a lot on Coke because water costs would be such a small part of their overall expense. The comment of mine you’ve highlighted is simply noting how large Coke’s advertising budget is, relative to their water costs (and probably everything else too)

    If I was interested in cutting Coke’s profits, I wouldn’t have been drinking 2 or 3 litres a day of Diet Coke for the last couple of years (although I’ve just stopped, but not for that reason).

  8. …funny that most people who scoffs down beef, drinks beer and coke might not agree with the idea…… Time for a change people!!!

  9. I haven’t seen the actual figures, but 41 litres for a dry cow/steer sounds right – we allowed 15 litres/day for good milking goats. This doesn’t take into account water used in the production of the animal’s feed.
    (Despite the popular assumption that goats are hard on country, they are actually more efficient at converting digestible dry matter into milk or meat than cattle.)

  10. Onya willful for geting back to those questions that interested Phillip and I, that is the methodology employed to gain a particular number.
    They do this with the unemployment figures, too BTW.
    We now know that beef on your property and many others is raised on the rainfall that falls on the land anyway (which may have had little use otherwise) rather than being drained from rivers. Therefore, cattle station water is not being drawn from some proposed finite source in short supply for other forms of more efficient agriculture (as with Cubbie Creek) or (god forbid) city folks water which also must be drawn from that same hypothetical finite universal source. In current times, the gullible might be encouraged to believeotherwise by political and corporate scaremongers with axes of their own to grind.
    We have the same sort of dishonesty in calculation that has it that rainwater tank water should be regarded as part of the water supply under the control of the grubby companies who took over the privatised water system in cities. Here, of course, run-off containment and treatment schemes are forbidden because it might jeopardise the profitability of those new sacred cows, the private water companies.

  11. Paul Walter – beware extrapolating from wilful’s experience. Beef production practices in southern Australia differ from those in central and northern Qld and the NT.

    The other difference is the nature of drainage patterns: in more than a few parts of northern Australia there defined water channels are few and far between, and in some regions primary producers harvest a great deal of the rainfall before runoff can reach creeks and rivers.

    And don’t forget that outflow from rivers is an important component of marine ecosystems…

  12. We know you’ve stopped drinking diet coke because you’ve stopped drinking the scotch that goes with it. That doesn’t make you anything less of a socialist, however.

  13. Now now young Yobbo, you’re just trying to be snide and nasty now, which doesn’t really enhance the credibility of your argument (on this occasion or later for that matter).

    I doubt I’ve had a scotch and coke (Diet or otherwise) in my life. As I noted, my Diet Coke (over)consumption started about 2 or so years ago until last week, a period which has not coincided with any scotch drinking.

    Weak riposte, and an even weaker argument. Have another try. I know you can make insightful points, I’ve seen you do it more than once.

  14. Thanks, Feral- are you the only one apart from a couple of blogs previously who grasps what I’m getting at.
    Your comments are the the sort of stuff I want to know about:
    Whys, wherefores, efficiency, environmental sustainabilty. Just browsed through Quiggin and the same sort of bafflement over enviro/water policy/eco sustainability is expressed inmany posts. There is either ideological stuff ( yes I’m guilty, too) left or right, or technical jargon from economists.Whether these are talking actual economics or just market theology am not quite sure.
    I want to see a bit more in the papers and media from and about CSIRO and university geography depts have to say, and less from politicians, vested interests and compromised think-tanks.

  15. Andrew said: “I’m not sure market forces would work with Coke somehow, as you could raise the price of water one hundredfold and they’d probably still make a profit selling it for the same price they are now, although they might have to reduce their advertising budget by 0.1% to cover the extra cost.”

    This misunderstand the economic rationale for using market mechanisms, such as pricing, to address environmental problems or, in this case, water scarcity. The aim is not to reduce water usage in each current or possible use. Rather, it is to provide incentives for those users who gain benefits that do not exceed the true costs of the resource (including the opportunity costs) to cut back their consumption. Andrew is right insofar as Coke is unlikely to fall within that category, but that reflects the high value consumers put on Coke relative to the costs of the inputs (including water) needed to make it. By not reducing the amount of Coke produced and consumed, but rather reducing other, lower net value uses of water, the market would in fact be working perfectly.

    Tom N. (economist)

  16. Paul Walter, I’m running late tonight (I don’t even have time to quarrel with Coral), so this will be short.

    These issues are complex from both management and scientific perspectives. Add political considerations and other vested interests, and it can all become mind-boggling. People like yourself are seeking definitive answers from the experts, but unfortunately the most honest answer to most of these questions is ‘It depends….’. Australian aquatic ecosystems simply differ too much across latitudes in several fundamental respects for any single management approach to be universally appropriate.

    The economists have brought considerable insights into natural resource management in recent years, and people like John Quiggin are definitely worth reading. Likewise David Pannell at Uni WA, Harry Clarke at kalimna.blogspot.com and Oscar Cacho and Jack Sinden at University of New England.

    So keep reading, treat simple answers with disdain, and don’t forget that much agriculture (and esp beef-growing) is increasingly a corporate activity.

  17. It seems people are so blinded by their love of animal products people will use any ol arguemnts from the “top of their heads” to justify their eating habits. 1kg of lentiles= $2 = $1 a kg after soaking whats a steak cost these days $10 a kg (much more when you remove fat and bone yes?) surely the cost should tell people how inefficient it is to “grow” animal products think about it..
    PS commercial tv is allways good for a laugh “Today” show solution to the water crises dual flush dunnies! maybe someone could ask them to do a segment on cuting down (or out) animal products but thats not going to happen is it as thats bloody unaustralian!)

  18. I don’t think you’re comparing apples to apples there.

    The figures for coke and beer seem to be only for use at the factory. I would expect a great deal more water is used in growing and processing the grain, sugar, and whatever mysterious stuff goes into coke. It might be more like 20:1, probably worse.

    Does anyone else notice, or think it’s odd that it’s people on the nominal left that tend to be more keen on market-based solutions like carbon taxes and water pricing?

  19. Martin, it’s not that people on the nominal left are keen the market-based approaches, it’s that they’re keen on anything which may reduce consumption. If the above ‘market-based’ approaches increased consuption, then they would be against them.

    Kind Regards,

  20. TFA, it is obvious that you regard me a steakholder. I can see now why therefore you arranged this re-veal-ing meating from the other thread, but can tell you I have mutton to add at this time even slightly, so will not mince words.. “calf measures avail us nothing”.
    Please use your own braise as to why this is so, and do not get yourself into a stew over these remarks; there’s a good lamb. Must fry now.
    As to other comments: Firsly Julien.
    The answer is not dual-flush dunnies so much as aneed to to persuade people to cease this obnoxious, anachronistic and unthinking habit they have for defecating each day. They should be convinced that that this is “un-Australian”. If people stopped abluting we wouldn’t need conveniences, hence an obviating of the single-flush/dual flush problem by the fact of the reason for it ceasing to exist.
    The only other solution I can see is using Coke for cisterns, since the economics around here seems to indicate it is cheaper than water. For that matter, use coke for animal husbandry and employ water as a mixer for rum.
    Now, off for gargle for tooth ache and on with air con- 38 deg!

  21. martin
    last time i looked i dont think that other than water that falls from the sky onto the padocks is used in growing grain or sugar cain.
    water is only used in processing beer and coke etc.
    no water is used to make flour and very little to produce sugar.

  22. Red Crab, you forget that Martin is an economist.
    He doesn’t see the world as you or I see it. Don’t worry, though.
    Martin is not consciously or willfully malevolent. He is just, well- an economist!

  23. Our group Queensland Group for Animal Rights
    http://www.qgar.oceandrop.org contacted Peter Garretts office today and spoke to them asking Shadow Environment Minister Peter Garrett to address the issue in Parliament Question time that Australian animal agribusiness is unsustainable.
    Not only is animal agribusiness destroying land, polluting waterways etc, it is actually contributing greatly to the
    intractable drought (cite UN report below) and is a major drain on precious water resources.

    Ironically PM Howard is ridiculously and fruitlessly spending millions of Australian taxpayer dollars on animal agribusiness
    farming drought packages, when it is a major contributor to the drought. Not to mention the cruelty inherent in animal
    agribusiness with live sheep export, mulesing, intensive factory farming, feedlots etc.

    Even excluding global warming, intensive animal agribusiness uses many many more times Australia’s precious water resources
    than other agribusiness sectors.

    We have contacted the CSIRO, Water Minister, DAFF, all the media outlets repeatedly, including the ABC TV eg “7.30 report” and “Lateline” and not one has touched this issue. Even GetUp.org will not touch this issue. It is conspicuous in it’s absence.

    This very important issue needs to be addressed in Parliament Question time that Australia needs to find a new direction for its economy and move away from animal agribusiness

    For everyone who is not aware of the UN Report, heres the link

    Rearing cattle produces more greenhouse gases than driving cars, UN report warns

  24. Trish’s response is the sort of post that deserves an answer.
    I agree wholeheartedly with concerning the media and press over these sorts of issues. It is true, however, that over many years ABC shows like “Landline” and 4 corners have presented many fine shows and segments on many environmental and”development” subjects. It is also true that the Australian public, misled by Packer, Murdoch and the thinktanks, has been stampeded into returning governments irrevocably married to a bastardized version of economic rationalism, imposed from without by US, North Asian and European financial interests and policed through mechanisms like GATT and AUSFTA. The positive content of the theories of liberalism and social democratic Keynesianism alike have been excised to produced just the monopolies of information and power the original theories critiqued.
    But I am glad I got to see the good ABC stories on the compromising of AQIS, live stock exports, PPP’s, attacks on the CSIRO, Tasmanian “forestry”, the white anting of Victorian Labor by logging and pulping and attacks on rational education, FOI ,”commercial in confidence”, “Sedition” and many other topics.
    But ten years of dog in the manger politics has smashed rational discourse, and those of us who would be interested and even persuaded to some extent through the ecological and economic arguments and statistics that you talk of, mourn the lack of opportunity to contemplate a rational presentation of your views.

  25. It will come as no surprise to many that as a vegetarian and living on a cattle and spud farm property,I find the water argument boring about cattle use,and other arguments that suggest cattle shouldnt be in the limited environments.This stuff has been going on so long much longer than the life of a bull I just heard.I think however,that the intelligent animal husbandry practices will survive wether or not people find easy shots at cattle growing or vegetarian vegans.Deeper thinking is going on and finding excellent results when cattle do work for the limited ecosystems.It is the unhurried bludger farmer who doesnt think about their water use and what that may mean.Potato farming is also cricised but again if people demanded more varieties from South America ,perhaps ,which may use less water,less back breaking work and lower water use would follow..But the consumer needs to think,and be interested in beef or potatoes or whatever..that way certainty of purpose and design can be built on farm.Wanting best outcomes may not be so costly.Scientist will correllate the causation maybe not be so well fixed.

  26. Just a thought.
    What about if we farmed and ate kangaroo instead? They don’t bugger up the top soil as much, are respondent to drought through a marvelous physiological response which stops breeding and are a leaner and therefore a better meat for us to consume.

    As a woman, I have suffered for anemia most of my adult years- yes its a medical problem that many women have to deal with and the most effective way to treat it is to eat meat.

  27. Julien:
    Thanks for mentioning the fact that people don’t NEED to eat meat!

    Go veggie. Stop ‘farming’ living, feeling creatures and save water and the environment in the process.

  28. It’s good to note that Trisha R from the Q’ld Group for Animal Rights has made some important points about why raising cows for food is questionable. Also “Go Lana”. But, if we were to look with truly compassionate hearts at many of our agri-practices, there’s no way we would put these amazing and beautiful beings through the suffering we do just to titilate our tastebuds. Animals each have their own personality, and to me are a pure delight! That’s why I haven’t eaten meat for a very long time. There is a shift away from eating meat and it will grow, I know. No criticism of all you meat eaters or agrifarmers. But our hearts will shift us away from this practice.

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