Water is a valuable, life-sustaining resource and, as some areas of the country are experiencing firsthand, one that’s often all too scarce. There are many questions about how much water agriculture uses. Today, pork producers have the answer regarding pork’s impact.

It takes 8.2 gallons to get a 4-ounce boneless pork serving from the field through the pork chain and onto the consumer’s dinner table.

That’s the assessment derived from a study – A Life Cycle Analysis of Water Use in U.S. Pork Production – commissioned by the Pork Checkoff and conducted by University of Arkansas researchers. While accurate comparisons between agricultural sectors don’t yet exist, Marty Matlock, executive director of the University of Arkansas’ Office for Sustainability, offered some perspective.

“The Water Footprint Network estimated that chicken requires 145 gallons of water per 5-ounce serving, and beef requires 500 gallons per 4.5-ounce serving,” Matlock said. “However, the methodology used is not very accurate.”

What sets the pork footprint apart is that University of Arkansas researchers applied the detailed and thorough Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodology. Also, researchers looked at two water-use LCAs.

The first LCA included actions throughout the pork chain from field to fork, including feed-grain production, transportation, processing, retail and even the consumer. The second LCA focused on water use on the farm from the field to the farm gate.

The study looked at USDA’s 10 designated production regions to evaluate differences in water use, its impacts and risks associated with management decisions. The researchers found: Feed accounts for 83 to 93 percent of the pork chain water footprint, depending on the grain source. Since water used in feed grain production is mostly tied to irrigation, the related water footprint can vary more than 100 times in magnitude from one region to another.

So, anything that grain producers can do to increase yield per acre will improve pork’s water footprint,” said Jamie Burr, who is with Tyson Foods and chairman of the Pork Checkoff’s Environmental Committee. “The same holds true for our efforts to improve feed efficiency.”

On-farm activities come in second at 5 percent to 13 percent of the pork chain’s water footprint. On-farm use is primarily for livestock drinking water, cooling water and water used for barn clean-up.

“It’s important to remember that most water used on the farm is not lost. It’s recycled and used again,” Burr said.

Post-farm-gate activities contribute 2 percent to 4 percent of the total water footprint. This includes pork processing, packaging, distribution and consumer use, which is responsible for the most post-farm-gate water use. Consumers no doubt would be surprised to learn they claim about 1 percent of the field-to-fork water footprint.

“Questions consumers ask increasingly drive our industry, and it’s important to let them know what it takes to produce food,” said Burr, who commends the Pork Checkoff for embarking on such an important project. “We need to share information to increase transparency and build trust. And with a better understanding of pork’s water footprint today, we can set goals for future reductions.”

The full water footprint study can be viewed online at pork.org/sustainability.