Your Diet Uses a Lot of Water. Here Are 9 Tips to Help You Cut Back

The connection between food and water is an obvious one. If you grew a lima bean in third grade science class, then you pretty much get it: If you didn't add water to the soil, you could forget any satisfying windowsill lima bean harvest. While we all know that it's impossible to grow food without water, things get complicated when you dive into the details. The concept of a water footprint is helpful shorthand for understanding how your daily food choices impact water resources, but it's important to know that water footprints are comprised of three parts that tell three different stories:

  • How much rainwater is used?
  • How much water is extracted from surface and groundwater for irrigation?
  • And how much water is polluted by producing the food?

Your diet makes up the vast majority of your water footprint, so with the three questions above in mind, here are nine tips for how to make your diet choices much more water-friendly.

1. Eat Less Meat

The most important choice you make when it comes to the water footprint of your diet is how much and what kind of meat you eat. Meat, particularly beef, has a very high water footprint, at about 1,800 gallons per pound. So by eating less meat and replacing it with less water-intensive plant-based alternatives, you're shrinking your water footprint.

2. Eat Better Meat

When you do eat meat, choose pasture-raised. While the overall water footprints of both "conventional" and pastured meat are about the same, the makeup of those footprintstells a very different story. Pastured meat relies mostly on rainwater for growing forage, and the animals' waste works as fertilizer for their fields. Industrially produced meat relies more on irrigated feed (like corn) and concentrates animal waste into huge manure lagoons, which can leak and contaminate nearby waters. Yes, pastured meat is more expensive, but if you cut back on how much meat you eat and offset it with (cheaper) plant-based options, then the costs balance out.

3. Say No to Frozen Dinners

The simple rule of thumb is that the less processed food is, the less water it took to reach your plate. Whether it's a frozen dinner or chips, candy or soda, heavily processed foods use additional water to do things like clean the food and machinery, pre-cook the food, produce the fuel for delivery, produce packaging and so forth. As much as you can, steer towards whole, unprocessed foods.

4. Stay on the Market's Edge

Most grocery stores have the same basic layout - whole foods like fruits and vegetables, meats and seafood on the outskirts, and lots of processed foods in the center. It's a good idea to venture into the middle aisles for some healthy staples like beans and whole grains, for example, but in general sticking to the edges of the market aisles is not just better for your health, it can be a great way to keep your water footprint in check (just remember tips #1 and #2 above when you reach the meat section).

5. Plan Your Meals

America wastes about 40 percentof its food every year - but what you might not know is that wasted food equals wasted water. Nearly 25 percentof the freshwater consumed in the country goes towards food that never gets eaten. Food waste at home is a big part of that problem, and there are lots of ways to cut back, but perhaps the most effective is to plan your meals before heading to the store. If your groceries are destined for specific meals, there's a much better chance that you won't find yourself throwing away forgotten, wilted greens and neglected, bad meats.

6. Choose Organic

In terms of water pollution, organic agriculture is much easier on our water supplies. Because organic farms don't use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, these pollutants won't run off of farm fields and into nearby waters. The soils at well-managed organic farms are better able to retain nutrients and moisture, which reduces the risk of groundwater pollution, too.

7. Eat Local

The food choices we make impact water supplies where the food was grown, and that's often far away from where we live. When you eat locally, you're not just supporting local farmers; you may be keeping the water used to grow that food within your watershed. That helps to cut down on "water exports" and eating locally from sustainable farms can also help protect water quality within the watershed. Better yet, talk to your local farmer, farmers' market seller or grocer about how that local food is produced.

8. Coffee's for Morning, Tea's for Afternoon

Coffee keeps much of the world moving, but it also has a much higher water footprint than coffee's cousin: tea. At about 34 gallons of waterto produce a typical cup of coffee and seven gallons for tea, try using the former for your morning jolt and the latter for keeping you going in the afternoon.

9. Make Your Own Dessert

You've made a lot of great choices, time for a reward! But remember, processed food uses more water. Cut back on the pre-made desserts and make your own ice creamdon't waste those summer berries and get creative with fall favorites.


Image "Irrigation" by John Curley on Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Genericlicense.