Grow: Expanding our ability to provide, through technology

What’s in Your Burger? Lots of Water, It Turns Out

For the amount of water needed to produce one pound of beef, 135 people could take a shower. At a time of severe water scarcity, technology is creating better ways for you to get your protein.

Rising sea levels, heavy and frequent rainstorms, devastating hurricanes. Cumulatively, they’re enough to make some people forget that the scarcity of water is actually one of the biggest problems we face as the climate continues to change. Rising temperatures don’t just cause rising sea levels; they also cause droughts. Unpredictable weather conditions mean increased flooding, which threatens to contaminate water sources by destroying sanitation facilities and water collection points. According to UN-Water, water availability is already becoming less predictable.

In 2016, the World Bank reported that 1.6 billion people live in regions with water scarcity and that this number could double by 2036. Last year, in a speech to the U.N. Security Council, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said that the global demand for fresh water will increase by 40 percent by the year 2050, at which point more than a quarter of the world’s population will live in areas with "chronic or recurrent" lack of clean water.

We will feel the effects of this in our lifetimes. So what do we do about it now? How do we conserve water in the most productive and efficient way?

We can start by making a big change in our individual lives, before big changes are made for us. Research shows that animal manure and the use of fertilizers in agriculture account for about 75 percent of the emissions of nitrous oxide (a harmful greenhouse gas), and that cattle alone are responsible for 23 percent of methane emissions worldwide. But, more than that, the process of raising livestock, cleaning their enclosures, maintaining land on which they can pasture, irrigating the crops they eat, and providing these billions of animals with drinking water each day accounts for nearly half of all the water used in the U.S., according to John Robbins in his book The Food Revolution. In addition, the International Water Management Institute reports that agriculture is a major source of water pollution in the U.S.

So, before you pick up that juicy burger, consider just how much precious water was used to create it.

But what does that look like in terms of water?

One pound of “clean meat”

A 2011 study carried out by scientists from Oxford University and the University of Amsterdam found that “clean meat,” or cultured meat, can potentially be produced with 96 percent lower water use than conventional meat. That means that one pound of clean meat would use up to 100 gallons of water.

“Of course, that’s going to be very inexact,” said Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute. “As the technology gets better, resource use will be less. So [96 percent] is probably conservative.”

One pound of “clean meat”

A 2011 study carried out by scientists from Oxford University and the University of Amsterdam found that “clean meat,” or cultured meat, can potentially be produced with 96 percent lower water use than conventional meat. That means that one pound of clean meat would use up to 100 gallons of water.

“Of course, that’s going to be very inexact,” said Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute. “As the technology gets better, resource use will be less. So [96 percent] is probably conservative.”

The problem of water scarcity is not going away. We must take action now, and the most drastic and effective action we can take is to combat the industry that claims most of our water usage. Cloud-based data analytics are aiding in the water crisis, helping companies to understand the amount of waste in their processes and to begin to eliminate some excess. As the data shows, though, we have a long way to go. At the same time, advances in food production and related technologies enable cleaner products. So the question remains: Will existing systems be updated, or will the world begin to take lab-grown meat more seriously?