Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute


Date of this Version


Document Type



Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2010) The green, blue and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products, Value of Water Research Report Series No. 48, UNESCO-IHE, Delft, the Netherlands.


© 2010 M.M. Mekonnen and A.Y. Hoekstra. The Value of Water Research Report Series is published by UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, in collaboration with University of Twente, Enschede, and Delft University of Technology, Delft.


The projected increase in the production and consumption of animal products is likely to put further pressure on the globe’s freshwater resources. The size and characteristics of the water footprint vary across animal types and production systems. The current study provides a comprehensive account of the global green, blue and grey water footprints of different sorts of farm animals and animal products, distinguishing between different production systems and considering the conditions in all countries of the world separately. The following animal categories were considered: beef cattle, dairy cattle, pig, sheep, goat, broiler chicken, layer chicken and horses. The study shows that the water footprint of meat from beef cattle (15400 m3/ton as a global average) is much larger than the footprints of meat from sheep (10400 m3/ton), pig (6000 m3/ton), goat (5500 m3/ton) or chicken (4300 m3/ton). The global average water footprint of chicken egg is 3300 m3/ton, while the water footprint of cow milk amounts to 1000 m3/ton. Per ton of product, animal products generally have a larger water footprint than crop products. The same is true when we look at the water footprint per calorie. The average water footprint per calorie for beef is twenty times larger than for cereals and starchy roots. When we look at the water requirements for protein, we find that the water footprint per gram of protein for milk, eggs and chicken meat is about 1.5 times larger than for pulses. For beef, the water footprint per gram of protein is 6 times larger than for pulses. In the case of fat, we find that butter has a relatively small water footprint per gram of fat, even lower than for oil crops. All other animal products, however, have larger water footprints per gram of fat when compared to oil crops. The study shows that from a freshwater resource perspective, it is more efficient to obtain calories, protein and fat through crop products than animal products. Global animal production requires about 2422 Gm3 of water per year (87.2% green, 6.2% blue, 6.6% grey water). One third of this volume is for the beef cattle sector; another 19% for the dairy cattle sector. Most of the total volume of water (98%) refers to the water footprint of the feed for the animals. Drinking water for the animals, service water and feed mixing water account only for 1.1%, 0.8% and 0.03%, respectively. The water footprints of animal products can be understood from three main factors: feed conversion efficiency of the animal, feed composition, and origin of the feed. The type of production system (grazing, mixed, industrial) is important because it influences all three factors. A first explanatory factor in the water footprints of animal products is the feed conversion efficiency. The more feed is required per unit of animal product, the more water is necessary (to produce the feed). The unfavourable feed conversion efficiency for beef cattle is largely responsible for the relatively large water footprint of beef. Sheep and goats have an unfavourable feed conversion efficiency as well, although better than cattle. A second factor is the feed composition, in particular the ratio of concentrates versus roughages and the percentage of valuable crop components versus crop residues in the concentrate. Chicken and pig have relatively large fractions of cereals and oil meal in their feed, which results in relatively large water footprints of their feed and abolishes the effect of the favourable feed conversion efficiencies. A third factor that influences the water footprint of an animal product is the origin of the feed. The water footprint of a specific animal product varies across countries due to differences in climate and agricultural practice in the regions from where the various feed components are obtained. Since sometimes a relatively large fraction of the feed is imported while at other times feed is mostly obtained locally, not only the size but also the spatial dimension of the water footprint depends on the sourcing of the feed.