Water is a critical input throughout the lifecycle of meat and dairy production, especially for feed production. Large amounts of irrigated ground and surface water are used in the production of animal feed in the Western states, diverting scarce water resources and accelerating the rapid depletion of underground aquifers.
A significant amount of electricity is used to pump ground and surface water for the production of animal feed, especially in the western states of Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Colorado and California. In California, feed production for animals, principally alfalfa, corn forage, hay and pasture account for 34 percent of all irrigated water pumped in the state (7.7 million acre feet). Meat processing, especially chicken, also uses large amounts of water.
Use of surface water and ground water for animal feed is accelerating the depletion of aquifers like the High Plains Ogallala, where farming accounts for 94 percent of water use, a major portion of it for animal-related agriculture. Groundwater tables across the West are being drained without sufficient recharge, leading to concerns that wells may eventually go dry. In California, water used for thirsty crops such as alfalfa (primarily for dairy cows) is being diverting other important uses, with devastating impacts on salmon and other fish stocks. High-protein foods, such as beans and tofu, require much less water than meat. A California Water Education Foundation study found that one gallon of tofu requires 219 gallons of water per pound, compared to 477 gallons for eggs, 896 gallons for cheese and 2,463 gallons for beef. A frequently cited global study estimates that it takes 1,857 gallons to produce a pound of beef, and 469 gallons for a pound of chicken (not including processing).