A Carnivore’s Lament

Robbie Horton
Math 33, fall 2017
Write and Respond Assignment 1


I am a carnivore. I consume a large amount of meat on a daily basis, most of it beef. I also consider myself to be an environmentally conscious individual, and I am aware that cows are a particularly egregious environmental burden; they produce methane gas and take up enormous amounts of land and water in comparison to other food animals. With that considered, I felt it necessary to at the very least ascertain how much of an impact my own personal beef-eating was having on the environment. I also wondered what the average water footprint was for American citizens, and if my assumed otherwise very sparse water usage (comparatively) was sufficient to offset my meat consumption.

Despite my awareness of the high water usage that goes into meat production, I assumed my (and, presumably, nearly everyone else’s) primary water expenditures happened domestically. According to an executive report from the Water Resarch Foundation [2], the average American’s domestic indoor water consumption is dominated primarily by hygiene, with 24%, 20%, and 19% going to toilet flushes, showers, and faucets, respectively. Those quantities add up to a total of 63% of domestic water use. Without getting too far into my own personal hygiene habits, I can say that I I take quick showers, only flush solids, and wash my dishes almost exclusively in a highly efficient dishwasher (dishwashers, on average, only make up 1% of average American indoor use), using my faucets pretty much only to wash my hands. These factors led me to believe that my personal indoor water usage is significantly below the average. It was now time to test that.

Conveniently, there are a number of readily available resources that helped me find out the extent, both comparatively and absolutely, of my water footprint. The website waterfootprint.org[3], set up by The Water Footprint Network in 2008, includes a great deal of relevant information, including a personal water footprint calculator that I found quite useful. Taking into account various details of food consumption, indoor and outdoor domestic water usage, and consumption of industrial goods (as estimated based on a person’s gross yearly income), this calculator produces a total personal water footprint (as measured in cubic meters per year). It also breaks down said total footprint into three categories: Food, Domestic Usage, and Industrial Usage. The Food category is then further broken down into subcategories for cereals, meats, vegetables, fruits, dairy products, stimulants (coffee and tea), fat, sugar, eggs, and “other”. Based on a number of factors (including active and passive water conservation measures I execute in my home and school life and my humorously low gross yearly income), I expected my footprint to be quite small. Instead, I found that my personal footprint is a whopping 1,825 cubic meters per year, or 482,114 ( \(4.8 \times\ 10^5\) ) US gallons. Furthermore, an astonishing 1,722 cubic meters (more than 94% of my total) of my water footprint was made up by my personal food consumption, with 1,384 cubic meters of that coming exclusively from my meat consumption. That means that almost 76% of my total water footprint is a result of my carnivorous diet.

There is a bit of a silver lining for me, however. The Water Footprint Network calculates that the average water footprint of an United States citizen is 2,840 cubic meters per year, or about 750,249 ( \(7.5 \times\ 10^5\) ) US gallons[3]. This means that my footprint is actually comparatively low in comparison to the average American.  In fact, I consume just about 64% of the national average:  \(1825 \div\ 2840 = 0.642\)

In conclusion: I take frequent measures to conserve water, so I hoped that that would offset my above average meat consumption. According to the Personal Water Footprint Calculator, however, the impact of consuming meats far outweighs the nickel-and-dime savings I scrape out of my everyday life. Despite my comparatively low rate of water consumption in regards to non-food items, my meat-eating habit results in an overall water footprint that is significantly closer than I had hoped to the needlessly-high average footprint for this country. Furthermore, I learned that an astonishing 76% of my own footprint comes from the meat that I eat. It has become painfully obvious to me that my carnivorous diet is disproportionately destructive to the environment in comparison to the rest of my lifestyle. I will sadly be compelled to make some significant changes to what I eat.


1): A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products, Mesfin M. Meonnen and Arjen Y. Hoekstra https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10021-011-9517-8
2): Residential End Uses of Water (Version 2) http://www.waterrf.org/PublicReportLibrary/4309A.pdf
3): Personal Water Footprint Calculator: http://waterfootprint.org/en/resources/interactive-tools/personal-water-footprint-calculator/personal-calculator-extended/

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5 Responses to A Carnivore’s Lament

  1. Margaret Claire Cochran says:

    Hey Robbie! I really enjoyed reading your piece because it is a different viewpoint for me. I’ve been a vegetarian for about 7 months now, and one of the bigger factors that cause me to become one was the environmental damages eating meat was causing. I think your response is interesting and I especially like the tables you provided. It was also smart of you to compare your water consumption with the global one and how your impact contributes, because I found it to be helpful and less confusing. I think it’s great you recognize that you could make changes to your diet and that you aren’t close minded on this topic! Overall, your response was really detailed and I loved seeing your view on this.

  2. jal6318 says:

    I really enjoyed this “Write and Respond” essay. I feel we don’t take into account how much water we use daily, especially those that are “hidden” such as food. In this society, we seem to highlight the importance of showering for a limited amount of time, turning off the faucets, etc. We seem to disregard how much water we use for food on average. I don’t consume much meat, specifically red meat, for medical and environmental purposes. How do you feel if a majority of the world went Vegan? Basically not consuming or using any animal products at all. Since we wouldn’t be needing to breed animals that often for food anymore. How much do you think this would impact the water consumption since the population would decrease? All in all, I was really interested in everything you had written in this piece, well done!

  3. Riley Nicole Schear says:

    Hi! I think this essay was very well written. We truly don’t realize how much water we use and waste. I can relate to this essay because both my parents are vegan. They watched many documentaries on all the bad things done to the animals and the environment. You make a lot of good points in your writing as well. I personally eat a lot of meat but have been trying to cut it down. I enjoyed reading this and you provided really interesting information!

  4. ccl5185 says:

    Wow, this was SO amazing to read. The topic I chose to do showed that we have the ability to decrease our carbon footprint significantly just by practicing Meatless Mondays. I eat a whole-food, plant-based vegan diet and I am so incredibly passionate about the impact it has on our personal health and the health of our environment. It takes A LOT of humility, in my opinion, to admit that a choice you’ve been making for most of your life isn’t actually the best choice. & it also takes a great deal of motivation and passion to make that change. This was such a great post to read with bits of humor thrown in and an honest, inspiring realization as the conclusion. Thank you for choosing this topic – you did an awesome job!

  5. cwa5234 says:

    Hello! I really enjoyed your write and respond, especially because I have been a vegetarian for years. My personal reason for following a vegetarian diet is based on my stance on animal rights, but I never thought about the use of water in raising animals as detrimental to our planet. As said in previous comments, I think it is very big of you to admit that something you are doing is not in the best interest for environment. One of the most astonishing things I read in your post was that the meat you eat makes up over 70% of your carbon footprint. This has inspired me to look up some possible way I could reduce my own carbon footprint. Overall, loved your post and hope it inspired some other people to look in to a diet containing less or no meat.

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