Background and theory
Life cycle assessment (LCA) and life cycle inventory (LCI) practice needs to engage with the debate on water use in agriculture and industry. In the case of the red meat sector, some of the methodologies proposed or in use cannot easily inform the debate because either the results are not denominated in units that are meaningful to the public or the results do not reflect environmental outcomes. This study aims to solve these problems by classifying water use LCI data in the Australian red meat sector in a manner consistent with contemporary definitions of sustainability. We intend to quantify water that is removed from the course it would take in the absence of production or degraded in quality by the production system.
Materials and methods
The water used by three red meat supply systems in southern Australia was estimated using hybrid LCA. Detailed process data incorporating actual growth rates and productivity achieved in two calendar years were complemented by an input–output analysis of goods and services purchased by the properties. Detailed hydrological modelling using a standard agricultural software package was carried out using actual weather data.
The model results demonstrated that the major hydrological flows in the system are rainfall and evapotranspiration. Transferred water flows and funds represent small components of the total water inputs to the agricultural enterprise, and the proportion of water degraded is also small relative to the water returned pure to the atmosphere. The results of this study indicate that water used to produce red meat in southern Australia is 18–540 L/kg HSCW, depending on the system, reference year and whether we focus on source or discharge characteristics.
Two key factors cause the considerable differences between the water use data presented by different authors: the treatment of rain and the feed production process. Including rain and evapotranspiration in LCI data used in simple environmental discussions is the main cause of disagreement between authors and is questionable from an environmental impact perspective because in the case of some native pastoral systems, these flows may not have changed substantially since the arrival of Europeans. Regarding the second factor, most of the grain and fodder crops used in the three red meat supply chains we studied in Australia are produced by dryland cropping. In other locations where surface water supplies are more readily available, such as the USA, irrigation of cattle fodder is more common. So whereas the treatment of rain is a methodological issue relevant to all studies relating water use to the production of red meat, the availability of irrigation water can be characterised as a fundamental difference between the infrastructure of red meat production systems in different locations.
Our results are consistent with other published work when the methodological diversity of their work and the approaches we have used are taken into account. We show that for media claims that tens or hundreds of thousands of litres of water are used in the production of red meat to be true, analysts have to ignore the environmental consequences of water use. Such results may nevertheless be interesting if the purpose of their calculations is to focus on calorific or financial gain rather than environmental optimisation.
Recommendations and perspectives
Our approach can be applied to other agricultural systems. We would not suggest that our results can be used as industry averages. In particular, we have not examined primary data for northern Australian beef production systems, where the majority of Australia’s export beef is produced.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Owens refers to ‘watersheds’. This may not be as clear as possible in this context. For example, transfers from part of the 106 km2 Murray-Darling watershed to another part of it might not be considered using this terminology. We think ‘watercourses’ is clearer
ABS (2005) 4610.0 Water Account Australia 2004-05. www.abs.gov.au. 28 Nov 2006
Allan JA (1998) Virtual water: a strategic resource, global solutions to regional deficits. Ground Water 36:545–546
Bayart J, Bulle C, Deschenes L, Margni M, Pfister S, Vince F, Koehler A (2010) A framework for assessing off-stream freshwater use in LCA. International Journal of LCA (in press)
Beckett JL, Oltjen JW (1993) Estimation of the water requirement for beef production in the United States. J Anim Sci 71:818–826
Brent A (2004) A life cycle impact assessment procedure with resource groups as areas of protection. Int J Life Cycle Assess 9(3):172–179
Brent A, Hietkamp S (2003) Comparative evaluation of life cycle impact assessment methods with a South African case study. Int J Life Cycle Assess 8(1):27–38
Coltro L, Mourad AL, Oliveira PAPLV, Baddini JPOA, Kletecke RM (2006) Environmental profile of Brazilian Green Coffee. International Journal of LCA 11(1):16–21
Ekvall T, Tillman A-M, Molander S (2005) Normative ethics and methodology for life cycle assessment. J Clean Prod 13:1225–1234
Falkenmark M, Rockström J (2006) The new blue and green water paradigm: breaking new ground for water resources planning and management. J Water Resour Plan Manage 132(3):129–132
Foran B, Lenzen M, Dey C (2005) Balancing act—a triple bottom line analysis of the Australian economy. CSIRO, Canberra
Heuvelmans G, Muys B, Feyen J (2005) Extending the life cycle methodology to cover impacts of land use systems on the water balance. Int J Life Cycle Assess 10(2):113–119
Hoekstra A, Chapagain A (2007) Water footprint of nations: water use by people as a function of their consumption pattern. Water Resour Manag 21:35–48
Hospido A, Moreira T, Feijoo G (2003) Simplified life cycle assessment of Galacian milk production. Int Dairy J 13:783–796
Johnson B (1994) Inventory of land management inputs for producing absorbent fiber for diapers: a comparison of cotton and softwood land management. For Prod J 44:39–45
Mila i Canals L, Burnip GM, Cowell SJ (2006) Evaluation of the environmental impacts of apple production using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA): case study in New Zealand. Agric Ecosyst Environ 114:226–238
Mila i Canals L, Chenowith J, Chapagain A, Orr S, Anton A, Clift R (2008) Assessing freshwater use impacts in LCA: part I—inventory modelling and characterisation factors for the main impact pathways. International Journal of LCA 14:28–42
MLA (2002) Eco-efficiency manual for meat processing. Meat and Livestock Australia, Sydney, p 138
Narayanaswamy V, Altham W, van Berkel R, McGregor M (2005) Application of life cycle assessment to enhance eco-efficiency of grains supply chains. 4th Australian Life Cycle Assessment Conference—Sustainability Measures for Decision Support, Sydney, 23–25 February, Australian Life Cycle Assessment Society, Melbourne
Owens JW (2002) Water resources in life-cycle impact assessment. J Ind Ecol 5(2):37–54
Peters G, Rowley HV (2009) Environmental comparison of biosolids management systems using life cycle assessment. Environ Sci Technol 43(8):2674–2679
Peters GM, Rowley HV, Wiedemann S, Tucker R, Short M, Schulz M (2010) Red meat production in Australia—a life cycle assessment and comparison with overseas studies. Environ Sci Technol. doi:10.1021/es901131e
Pfister S, Koehler A, Hellweg S (2009) Assessing the environmental impacts of freshwater consumption in LCA. Environ Sci Technol 43(11):4098–4104
Pimentel D (1980) Handbook of energy utilisation in agriculture. CRC, Baton Roca, 0-8493-2661-3
Pimentel D, Pimentel M (2003) Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment. Am J Clin Nutr 78:660S–663S
Pimentel D, Houser J, Preiss E, White O, Fang H, Mesnick L, Barsky T, Tariche S, Schreck J, Alpert S (1997) Water resources: agriculture, the environment, and society: an assessment of the status of water resources. Bioscience 47(2):97–108
Rowley HV, Lundie S, Peters GM (2009) A hybrid model for comparison with conventional methodologies in Australia. Int J Life Cycle Assess 14(6):508–516
Russell A, Ekvall T, Baumann H (2005) Life cycle assessment—introduction and overview. J Clean Prod 13(13–14):1207–1210
Scanlon BR, Jolly I, Sophocleous M, Zhang L (2007) Global impacts of conversions from natural to agricultural ecosystems on water resources: quantity versus quality. Water Resour Res 43(3):WO3437
Stewart M, Weidema B (2005) A consistent framework for assessing the impacts from resource use—a focus on resource functionality. Int J Life Cycle Assess 10(4):240–247
Udo de Haes H, Jolliet O, Finnveden G, Hauschild M, Krewitt W, Müller-Wenk R (1999) Best available practice regarding impact categories and category indicators in life cycle assessment. Int J Life Cycle Assess 4(3):167–174
Wood R, Lenzen M, Dey C, Lundie S (2006) A comparative study of some environmental impacts of conventional and organic farming in Australia. Agric Syst 89:324–348
Zygmunt J (2007) Hidden waters—a waterwise briefing. Waterwise, London
We wish to thank Meat and Livestock Australia for funding this research and the farm managers who supplied data.
Responsible editor: Annette Koehler
About this article
Cite this article
Peters, G.M., Wiedemann, S.G., Rowley, H.V. et al. Accounting for water use in Australian red meat production. Int J Life Cycle Assess 15, 311–320 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-010-0161-x
- Hybrid LCA