How Water Footprints Can Help Us Eat Less Water

Caption CREDIT: Ellie O.

What's the water footprint of your hamburger?

This post was originally published onĀ National Geographic's Water Currents blog.

How do we get Americans to conserve water? The first step is to show just much water it takes to make the average American's lifestyle possible. But water conservation means a lot more than the typical advice to take shorter showers and wash fewer loads of laundry. While such actions are important, there are other ways to save much more.

Those who use GRACE Communications Foundation's Water Footprint Calculator know that diet makes up the largest part of our individual water footprints. This is part of what's called "virtual" water use, or the amount of water required to produce the food we eat, energy we use and the things we buy. Even though the water consumed to produce these items can't be seen or felt, it comprises the majority of our water footprint.

Agriculture's Big Water Footprint

In the United States, agriculture is a major surface and groundwater user. In fact, a full 80 percent of all consumptive water use in the US comes from agriculture. When the historic California drought hit two seasons ago, many were shocked by what were once considered arcane facts about the water used to produce our food. Headlines about how it takes just over one gallon of water to produce an almond were common.

Generally, the water footprint of fruits, vegetables, grains and pulses (like beans) is smaller than that of meat, dairy and nuts. Beef is the king of big water footprints: It takes about 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. This is because cattle are physically large, have relatively long lives, eat so much food and are rather inefficient at converting feed to meat (compared to, say, chickens). In the United States, most beef cattle are raised on feedlots for a large portion of their lives, and while there, they eat feed made from grains like corn, sorghum, barley and oats - lots of it. It takes a tremendous amount of water to grow feed, especially the grains that go into cattle feed. This can be problematic for strained water resources when those crops are irrigated.

In addition to water for animal feed, how and where water is used has a large impact. Crops grown in areas with abundant rainfall tend to put less pressure on water resources. On the other hand, thirsty crops grown in arid locations or areas prone to drought can challenge sustainable water use when irrigation is necessary. There are additional challenges when vulnerable water sources are used to boost crop yields. For example, irrigation nearly doubled from 2002 to 2016 in the water-stressed Republican River basin through parts of Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas.

Competition between different types of water users is another source of trouble. A large share of US crops are grown in areas where such competition for water exists, as is the case in California and other arid Western states, the drought-prone Southeast and even the Great Plains where a major aquifer is being drained from agricultural overuse. Different sectors, including energy, industry, residential and the natural environment, all have specific water demands that compete with agriculture.

In the end, no location is immune from drought or water resource problems, even if only on a temporary basis. As rainfall and drought patterns continue to shift and intensify, water supplies will become increasingly stressed, which will have an inordinate effect on farming and food production. To use water more sustainably, farmers and food companies find that they must measure and understand how water is used along the production chain, which helps them recognize the extent of their water use and identify areas where they can cut back. At the same time, farmers, ranchers and other producers must be aware of water pollution that occurs within the process. This is important because pollution increases water use since more water is required to help clean up pollution.

How Can We Lower Our Water Footprints?

Water footprints show that water use and food consumption don't exist in isolation. As individuals we aren't just residential water users; we're also agricultural water users. After the California drought, there was a dawning recognition among consumers that they aren't just eating almonds from California, but are also "eating" the water that irrigated them. The same notion holds true for foods and goods imported from far-away places. Through water footprints, consumers are able to make connections between their purchases and behaviors and the water used in goods and services.

Just as conservation measures can help cut residential water use, changing how we eat can lead to reductions in agricultural water use. By learning about the water footprint of the food we eat, consumers can make more sustainable choices. (Reducing our water footprints can also have the additional benefit of reducing water pollution in the waters that surround us.)

There are many ways a person can eat their way to water savings:

  • Eat Less Meat: Eating less meat reduces a person's water footprint by reducing the volume of water required to produce that meat. For example, someone who passes on a beef burger forgoes all the water it took to grow the feed the cattle ate, thus shrinking their water footprint by approximately 660 gallons. Consider doing Meatless Monday, which means skipping meat one day a week. You'll slash your meat consumption by 15 percent.
  • Eat Better Meat: When meat is on the menu, eating meat and animal products from animals that are raised on well-managed pasture means they eat grass and forage that typically relies on rainwater as opposed to feed irrigated by precious surface waters and groundwater. Raising animals on grass and pasture provides benefits beyond more sustainable water use, including decreased air, water and soil pollution, reduced antibiotic use in livestock and poultry and improved animal welfare.
  • Eat Whole Foods: Eating more whole foods and less highly processed foods is another way to lower water footprints, because it takes additional water to process and package food. For instance, the water footprint for a one-pound bag of potato chips is 125 gallons as compared to 34 gallons for a pound of whole potatoes.
  • Waste Less Food: A different way to lower water footprints is by avoiding wasted food. In the US, 30 to 40 percent of the food supply is wasted, and the majority of this perfectly good food is thrown away at home. That's an average of over 400 pounds of food wasted per person per year. When we waste food, we are wasting the water, energy, land and seeds (not to mention labor and animals) required to create that food. Not wasting food is a smart way to lighten impacts and lower water footprints.

To find your own impact and see how your diet and lifestyle contribute to your personal water footprint, take the GRACE Water Footprint Calculator. Once you're done, check out the newly expanded website to find over 100 water-saving tips, in-depth issue pages about water footprints and educational resources that will help you reduce your water footprint.