Is your diet contributing to water scarcity?
We know plants and animals need water, but the amount of water now used in our food production system is storing up major problems for the future. Read our guide on water scarcity to find out more.
Did you know that everything you eat has a water footprint? Similar to a carbon footprint, this is the amount of water it takes to grow, produce, transport, and prepare or cook our food. Some individual crops, like avocados, have a large water footprint as do developing countries that are growing quickly.
The good news is that changing the foods we eat can help preserve our natural resources and cut your personal water footprint.
How does food affect water scarcity?
UNESCO says farming and agriculture are currently responsible for 70 per cent of the world’s freshwater use, rising to 90 per cent in some developing countries. As the global population increases, this increases the pressure on our food and water systems, too.
The foods we eat also have a significant impact on water resources; it takes around 15,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef compared with just 6,000 litres of water for 1kg of lentils. This is mainly because of the amount of crops needed to feed the animals, which have to be grown and processed first.
Certain foods affect water scarcity in different ways. For example, industrial asparagus farms in the Ica Valley in Peru are draining away local water resources – villagers have found their wells drying up. The situation has led to violence and accusations of corruption, while the area is also likely to hit by global warming, increasing water scarcity.
Another factor is food waste. The UN says one third of the world’s food production is either lost or wasted every year, which means the amount of water we waste is enough to fill Lake Geneva three times over.
What are the worst foods for water scarcity?
If you want to save water, your diet is a great place to start – what we eat makes up around 50% of our water footprint. So, what thirsty foods should you watch out for?
No surprises for guessing that beef has a big water footprint; it’s also the largest source of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, in our diet. It takes 2,500 litres of water to produce just one hamburger, or 15,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef.
Reducing the amount of red meat you eat, switching to plant-based alternatives, or eating beef from pasture-raised cows, beef you can often find at your local butcher – this cuts down the amount of feed they need – can all help reduce your water footprint.
They may be a favourite snack choice, but almonds are very thirsty; it takes nearly 12 litres of water to grow one single nut! Almond milk has a surprisingly high water footprint too. A single glass (200ml) needs 74 litres of water, compared with 9.6 litres for oat milk.
California supplies around 80 per cent of the world’s almonds, but intensive farming means orchards are watered by irrigation, rather than natural methods like rainfall, contributing to droughts. To reduce your water footprint, avoid buying almonds or almond milk from producers in California or check if they're from sustainable farms.
The little green fruit has a large water footprint – and a bad reputation in some countries. The Water Footprint Network says a single avocado needs 227 litres of water (60 gallons) to grow, while a kilo will soak up 2,000 litres. Avocados have also been linked to deforestation in Mexico and droughts in Chile.
Coffee and orange juice
In another blow to Instagram brunch snaps, coffee is also on the water scarcity watch list. It takes 130 litres of water to produce one cup of coffee (125ml). And if you’re having that with almond milk, the water footprint of your latte will be even larger.
Fancy some OJ instead? A glass of orange juice (200ml) could set you back 200 litres of water, thanks to the amount of H2O needed to grow the fruit, plus all the pesticides and fertilisers that can pollute the water supply (this raises the total amount of water used).
The best foods to fight water scarcity
As well as following the advice above, there are several tweaks you can make to your diet to reduce your water footprint.
Eat plant-based foods
Upping your intake of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes is one of the easiest ways to fight water scarcity. A landmark study released in 2018 concluded that even the lowest-impact animal products still had a much greater impact on the environment than plant-based substitutes.
Check too that the foods you eat aren’t contributing to the problem; wheat, rice and maize are the three biggest ‘drinkers’ when it comes to grains. Rice is also one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases, so switch to alternative grains or find out how your usual grains are produced.
Go for ‘whole’ foods
Processed foods, such as cakes, biscuits, ready meals and fizzy drinks, need more water to be produced than whole foods, like fruits and vegetables. This is because they involve various stages of production that need different ingredients, transportation, packaging, and potentially recycling. By sticking to natural foods that have had very little processing, you can reduce the amount of water needed to get them from farm to fork.
Eat local produce
When we buy products grown abroad, we’re also importing their water in a trade known as ‘virtual water’. But when you buy locally grown produce, you're helping to reduce water exports – maintaining water resources in other countries – and support local farmers.
More on sustainability
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The facts about food miles
6 pieces of packaging to avoid
10 ways to eat out sustainably
How to reduce food waste
What biodegradable really means
Is a vegan diet better for the environment?
How to compost food at home
8 ways to be a better recycler
What are greenhouse gases?
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