A nature research journal has revealed that the worldwide love for burgers, steaks and dairy products is draining the freshwater in the western US and putting native fish species at risk.

Nature Sustainabilityexamined the link between water shortages in the 17 western states in the US and beef production, and it can prove that irrigation of cattle-feed crops is the biggest driver behind water scarcity in the region, which endangers the local ecosystem for aquatic species.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, each year, about 39 million cattle and calves are killed for food in the US. The water that is used for producing fodder for these livestock accounts for 86% of the total water consumption in the 17 western states in the US, where nearly all US cattle-feed crops requiring irrigation are grown and severe river flow depletion has been seen. As a result, 60 fish species in the region are estimated to face distinction or imperilment. 

Where are all the beef lovers?

The research indicates that nearly a quarter of the total water footprint of American consumers comes from beef consumption. Around 36 kg beef are consumed in America per person per year, which is 3.9 times the world average (9.3 kg per person per year). The country is also a major beef producer in the world, accounting for 18% of global beef production. So, who are buying and eating all the beef?

The top five areas in the US that consume the most beef grown on river-irrigated feed crops are Los Angeles – Long Beach; Portland – Salem; Denver – Aurora; San Francisco – Oakland -San Jose; and Seattle – Tacoma. While Laredo, Texas is the area that consumes most beef per capita, followed by the Portland.

The Colorado River Basinis a significant part in the history and development of the American West. Located in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, the river is the primary source of water for a region that receives little annual rainfall. However, it has also become one of the victims of the massive beef production. From 2000 to 2015, the over consumption in the basin has dried the river and depleted major storage reservoirs, posing severe risk or water shortage; and this worrying sight is the result of the beef consumption in Lod Angeles – Long Beach, Denver – Aurora and San Francisco – Oakland – Jose.

Nonetheless, America is not the only culprit in this case. The Nature Sustainability’s research suggests that as of 2012, nearly one-tenth of the crops grown in the western states were being exported to other countries, such as Canada, Japan, South Korea and Mexico. In recent years, the figure has increased by around four percent due to the huge expansion in the demand for beef in China.

How land and water are used for meat production

Meat production has been associated with the accelerated carbon footprint and global warming for quite a long time, but its impact on water storages has not been given as much emphasis. In fact,  40% of the cerealsproduced in the world are used to feed animal; over 90% of humanity’s water footprint is related to agriculture, while animal products are responsible for nearly 30% of the water footprint of the global agriculture section. As for its land use -  a 2006 researchpoints out that 70% of all agriculture land and 30 % of the planet’s land surface are used to farm livestock.

What can be done?

There is a probable solution to freshwater overuse that has been circulating among the specialists – rational fallowing of irrigated cattle-feed crops. This measure is suggested to be capable of reducing water shortage risks substantially while benefiting farmers financially and minimizing food-security risks. 

However, the research acknowledges, in order to protect the ecosystem other efforts from farmers, policymakers and general meat consumers are required. Firstly, urban and rural water users need to collaborate to come up with demand-management strategies, secondly, political leaders have to secure funding to implement those strategies, and last but certainly not least, beef and dairy will have to reduce their consumption or select other products that do not depend on irrigated cattle-feed crops.


Despite all the scientific evidence that is lying in front of us, the ecosystem and environment will continue to be damaged if the human race does not take drastic and swift action.










Burgers, milk, beef and water shortages