Conserve Water with What You Eat

By Caroline Young Bearden, MS, RD, LD

Forty states are expected to have water shortages over the next 10 years. U.S. communities are starting to face both quality and supply issues, unrelated to drought, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Stress on water resources can negatively impact human and environmental health, causing issues like higher water prices, heightening summer watering restraints, loss of recreational areas like lakes and rivers, higher levels of natural and human pollutants, and expensive water treatment projects to transport and store freshwater (1). 

The Menus of Change committee, a group of culinary experts and scientists from the Culinary Institute of America and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, put out a call to action to the foodservice industry to “act much, much faster” in response to water stress. According to their 2017 report, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimates that water stress may put almost half of the world’s population and 40% of grain production at risk by 2050. The committee’s concern is there are not enough food companies considering water supply and water quality impacts of their food sources (2, 3). 

Water and our Diets

America’s agriculture sector accounts for about 80% of U.S. water consumption, according to the USDA (4).

And peanuts are the most water-efficient of all nuts, using only 3.2 gallons of water to produce one serving (1 ounce) compared to almonds, for example, which use 28.7 gallons per ounce. Worldwide peanut production contributes to just 1% of the global water footprint, which is the measure of water used to produce goods and services (5).

Aside from peanuts, other plant-based protein sources, like beans, contribute to a much smaller portion of the water footprint than animal products, like beef. In fact, beans use 5 gallons of water per each gram of protein, while beef uses nearly 30 gallons of water per each gram of protein. The drastic difference between water footprints of plant-based proteins and animal-based proteins is mostly attributed to the water footprint of the animal feed (6).

For optimal human health, the USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend getting protein from a variety of sources. With water conservation in mind, moving in a plant-forward direction (to include more plants and plant-based protein, in addition to some animal protein) can make a difference.

Basically, the more plants and plant-based proteins you eat, the more you are helping to conserve our water supply. Let’s look at other food groups to get a better idea…

As far as carbohydrates go, sorghum (a cereal grain) and potatoes contribute to about 2% and 1%, respectively, of the water footprint. Compare that to corn and rice, which contribute to about 13% and 10%, respectively.

Some fruits use less water than others, such as citrus, which uses between 65 and 80 gallons of water per pound, compared to stone fruits like peaches and avocados, which use 109 gallons per pound and 140 gallons per pound, respectively. Fruits like apples, bananas strawberries, pineapple and watermelon require less than 100 gallons per pound.

And in the veggie world, most vegetables use less than 200 gallons of water per pound, with cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts using the least (around 30 gallons per pound) (7).

Here is an example of a water-saving menu for one day’s worth of food:

If plant-based eating is a stretch, aim for a plant-based meal to start.

Breakfast: Steel Cut Oats with Peanut Butter and banana

Lunch: Sorghum Bowl with Black Beans, amaranth, avocado and feta.

Dinner: Lentil Mushroom Burgers served with roasted cauliflower or Brussels Sprouts and a Strawberry, Honey and Peanut salad.




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