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Posted on June 10, 2021
We all know it’s a faux pas to turn on the sprinkler in the middle of a drought, but few people would give their neighbor the side-eye for grilling a cheeseburger. Yet, that seemingly unrelated choice wastes far more water.
Water is important – being the primary sustainer of life on earth – and we have very little of it at our disposal. Only about 2.5% of the world’s water is freshwater, and much of that is not easily accessible. At the same time, 75% of our body weight is water. So: we need a lot of it, we have only a small amount to work with, and we might be wasting a lot of this precious resource without even realizing it.
When it comes to water usage, there are two main categories: visible and virtual. Visible water usage is the water you use directly – to water the garden, take a shower, or wash the dishes. Virtual water usage accounts for water used elsewhere to produce things you consume. While visible water uses seem like they’d take the lion’s share, globally they only account for about 11% of total water use.
Curious how you stack up? Get to know your own water footprint with this online calculator.
It’s true that everything counts when lowering water use. Surprisingly, the things that count the most are not the length of your shower or how many of your faucets are low-flow (though these are important, too!). Virtual uses, especially food and energy production, are the biggest factors in your water footprint score. Between these two, food is the easiest to change – in fact, you can start today!
All food production requires water (agriculture accounts for 70% of global water usage), but those requirements vary widely. Knowing the hidden water costs of different foods helps you make informed choices.
Let’s take a closer look at your water “foodprint.” This is the water use associated with the production of foods you buy. A water “foodprint” takes into account water used to grow or produce a food as well as freshwater that becomes polluted as a result.
Vegetables – Whether they’re grown in your garden or someone else’s, veggies need the least amount of water. They require regular irrigation to grow and a little more to clean post-harvest. If you add in transportation, the water usage goes up (it takes 3-6 gallons of water to make one gallon of gas!). But even so, unprocessed vegetables score high for water conservation. Going organic? That lowers the score even more, as organic systems do a better job of reducing runoff (pollution) and holding water in the soil (all that compost pays off!).
Processed Foods – Any food you don’t cook yourself requires someone somewhere to use water to make it – and to wash the machinery, manufacture packaging materials, and transport the final product. This is on top of the water cost of growing and transporting the raw ingredients.
Beans and Other Legumes – This category of foods has a little extra nuance when it comes to its water foodprint. While beans and legumes are safely in a category that requires less water than nuts or meat, their performance next to other good sources of protein – dairy and eggs – waffles a bit. That’s because water waste in the context of food can be sliced several different ways. For instance, water use per kilocalorie, per gram of protein, or in the context of water scarcity, will all yield different rankings. All in all, they are a good choice for a water-wise diet.
Dairy – Animal products are where you really start to see water costs skyrocket. Not only does the dairy cow itself consume water, the majority of its feed comes from heavily irrigated crops like corn and soybeans. Even if they mostly eat grass, the field where they dine has been irrigated to keep the pasture grazable. Milk and dairy products rank as one of the most water intensive foods out there when measured in terms of water inputs alone – on average it takes 5,605 liters of water to produce one kilo of cheese!
Nuts – Although nuts are an obvious choice for replacing animal proteins, it’s important to know that their water foodprint is substantial. Some nuts – peanuts – are much lower than others – cashews and almonds – but they’re all high compared to other plant-based foods. Add to that the fact that most of the world’s nuts are grown in regions where there isn’t nearly enough rainwater to meet their needs, and nuts become one of the most water-intensive foods out there in terms of utilizing drinkable surface and groundwater.
Meat: Meat requires a lot of water to produce. Beef is by far the worst offender, followed by lamb, poultry (& eggs), and pork. This is in part because of the same reasons dairy is water costly, with the addition of more feed and more pollution per kilo of food produced. That cheeseburger your neighbor ate cost over 2700 liters of water per serving, as much as 70 5-minute showers!
Every day you make choices about what to eat. There’s a lot to consider (health! environment! cost! convenience!) – including fresh water conservation. As the world’s population grows and the climate crisis deepens, knowing the environmental costs hidden in your food choices is more important than ever.
When you can, make a choice that reduces your personal water footprint, too! Consider the possible savings choice-by-choice, day-by-day. When you can, choose a lentil or beet burger instead of beef, top it with a plant-based cheese, and remember not only to eat your vegetables, but to prepare them yourself as much as possible.
By Sarah West
Sarah has a background in horticulture and regional food systems. She got her first job at a natural food store when she was 15 and she’s been a proponent of ethical food choices ever since. She lives in a beautiful rural community in the northeast corner of Oregon.