Have you ever looked at a plate of food and wondered, “How much water does it take to make a hamburger?” The largest portion of the average person’s water footprint comes from their diet. In order to lower water footprints, there’s no better place for a person to start than to make water-friendly food choices.
Water Footprints and Diet
The water it takes to make a hamburger is a lot – about 800 gallons. There’s the beef and maybe cheese, there’s a bun and lettuce and tomato. All of these items started as crops or as animals who ate crops, and those crops took a lot of water. In fact, in the US, agriculture is responsible for between 80 and 90 percent of the nation’s consumptive water use. Clearly, food and water are closely linked, and water footprints are an excellent way to help people understand how their daily food choices impact water resources.
Keep in mind that water footprints of food items are comprised of three different parts:
- The amount of much rainwater used (green water footprint);
- The amount of water extracted from surface and groundwater for irrigation (blue water footprint); and
- The amount of water needed to dilute pollution created by producing the food (gray water footprint).
Six Water-friendly Food Choices
Eat Less Meat
The best way to lower dietary water footprints is to cut back on eating meat. While the water it takes to make a hamburger is high – beef has a particularly high water footprint at about 1,800 gallons per pound – pork and chicken also take quite a bit, with pork at 578 gallons and chicken at 468 gallons. On average, the water footprint of a vegan or vegetarian is around half that of a meat eater, however meat eaters don’t have to give up meat altogether to make a big difference. By eating less meat and replacing it with less water-intensive plant-based alternatives, water footprints will shrink.
Eat Better Meat
When choosing meat, eat better meat – choose pasture-raised, if possible. The water footprints of both “conventional” and pastured meat are about the same, but their impact on water resources can be quite different. Well managed pastured meat relies mostly on rainwater (green water footprint) for growing forage, and the animals’ manure works as fertilizer for their fields. Conventional meat relies more on feed like corn which is often irrigated (blue water footprint). The waste generated by the large number of animals in a conventional farm is concentrated into manure lagoons, which can leak and pollute nearby waters.
Eat More Unprocessed Foods
Processed foods like frozen dinners, chips, candy and soda require more water to produce than whole foods. While the water footprint of whole foods like fruits and vegetables is made up entirely of water needed to grow, processed foods require additional water for things like cleaning the food and machinery, pre-cooking the food, producing fuel for delivery and making packaging materials. At the grocery store, a good rule of thumb is to spend most shopping time on the market’s edge to find whole foods like fruits and vegetables, and (hopefully) pasture-raised meats and sustainable seafood. It’s still a good idea to venture into the middle aisles for some healthy staples like beans and whole grains. This strategy is a way to keep water footprints in check.
Waste Less Food
Americans waste about 40 percent of their food every year. Because it takes a lot of water to get food to people’s plates, wasted food also means wasted water. In fact, nearly 25 percent of the freshwater consumed in the US goes towards food that never gets eaten. While there is waste at all stages on the food supply chain, food waste at home is a big part of the problem. The good news is that there are lots of ways to cut waste. The easiest and perhaps most effective thing to do is to plan out meals before heading to the store. There’s a much better chance that food won’t get forgotten in the pantry or refrigerator if groceries are destined for specific meals.
Organic farms don’t use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, so those pollutants won’t run off of farm fields and into nearby waters. In addition, soils at organic farms tend to be much better at retaining nutrients and moisture, which reduces the risk of groundwater pollution. Buying products grown organically helps support farms that are making big efforts to reduce water pollution, which means those products have a smaller gray water footprint.
Food choices impact water supplies where the food was grown, and usually that’s far away from where people live. A growing number of Americans are choosing to buy food locally and that supports local farmers. But the local food movement can also benefit local waters by helping to keep the water used to grow food within the watershed. This helps to cut down on “water exports” from across the country or across the globe. Additionally, eating food grown on local, organic and sustainable farms can help protect water quality within the watershed.