Current approaches to estimate freshwater use in livestock production systems generally fail to consider the competition for water resources with alternative uses, such as production of food crops food or other ecosystem services. This article presents a new method to account for the competition for freshwater use between food crops and animal feed, while assessing freshwater use in livestock production systems.

The developed water use ratio is defined as the maximum amount of human digestible protein derived from food crops from the consumptive water use appropriated to produce 1 kg of animal-source food over the amount of human digestible protein in that 1 kg of animal-source food. The consumptive water use for livestock production is first categorized according to the land over which it is consumed, based on the suitability of that land to produce food crops.

Then, the method assesses food-feed competition by determining the amount of human digestible protein that could have been produced from food crops, using the same consumptive water use currently used to produce animal-source food. The method enables identification of livestock production systems that contribute to global food supply without competing significantly over water resources with food production, based on their consumptive water use.

Three beef production systems in Uruguay are used to illustrate the method. During the backgrounding and the finishing stages, which are analyzed in this study, cattle can be kept on natural pasture (NP), seeded pasture (SP) or in feedlots (FL). The following three systems were analysed: i) NP-NP, ii) SP-SP and iii) SP-FL.

Results show that the NP-NP system uses the largest amount of water per kg of beef output. However, results also show that the SP-SP and SP-FL systems can potentially produce more human digestible protein by growing food crops than by producing beef. Based on the traditional measure for water productivity, i.e. the quantity of consumptive water use per kilo of beef produced, we would conclude that the NP-NP system is least efficient, whereas based on the water use ratio the NP-NP system is the only system producing human digestible protein more efficiently than food crops.

Sustainable intensification not only implies improving agriculture and livestock productivity per unit of resource used, but also improving the number of human beings nourished. Results from this study illustrate the importance of considering competition and trade-offs with other uses when evaluating water use efficiency of livestock systems to promote sustainable intensification.

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