Today is Blog Action Day. Thousands of bloggers all over the planet are talking about water, from the perspectives of their individual blogs. I’d like to talk about food’s water footprint, how what we eat affects the water we all need.
The Great Lakes are called that for a reason. Together, they cover 94,000 square miles. In school, they loomed large for me, both in geography and history lessons. I was enthralled by tales of intrepid explorers and voyageurs braving these fresh water oceans in mere canoes. And living in Chicago now on the shores of Lake Michigan, I am wowed by its power and size every single time I see it.
Still, on a trip to Toronto last fall, we were given a startling new perspective on the Great Lakes and on water in general. A large chalk illustration of the five Great Lakes covered an entire wall in a trendy shop on Queen Street (if anything, Canada is more attuned to the importance of these vast bodies of water than the United States is). Next to the illustration it said, “The Great Lakes contain 18 percent of the world’s fresh water.”
One logical response to this fact might be that the Great Lakes are amazingly huge. For me, though, it drove home more forcefully than anything I’d heard up until then the idea that fresh water is a finite, limited resource on our planet. The shop’s number was conservative, by the way. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “They contain about 21 percent of the world’s supply and about 84 percent of North America’s surface fresh water. Only the polar ice caps contain more fresh water.”
What does this have to do with food? Plenty, it turns out. Food’s carbon footprint, often measured in the miles it travels from farm to table, has been well publicized and is one of the driving forces behind the locavore movement. But food has a water footprint too—the amount of water required to produce the food. Some of the numbers are surprising. Others are downright staggering. It takes more than 18 gallons of water to grow an apple, for instance. An egg takes almost 36 gallons of water to produce. And a single hamburger, a horrifying 634 gallons. These numbers come from The Water Project, a non-profit organization that raises money to build wells and other water projects at schools, medical centers, churches and other public places in underdeveloped nations.
That beef has such a gigantic water footprint makes sense. Not only does the livestock require water—the feedlot grain used in factory farming takes vast quantities of water to produce. And sadly, even as some Americans are reducing their beef intake, as some developing nations enjoy economic growth, they’re developing a taste for beef. Consumption of beef is on the rise in India, and in China, it has soared 240 percent over the past decade. The production of other meats has a higher water footprint too. Any time you have to grow something to feed to another thing you’re growing, the use of water becomes less efficient.
But this is not to say that meat is the only food with water footprint issues. Just last month, UK newspaper The Guardian reported that Britain’s love of asparagus is sucking Peru’s wells dry. The Ica Valley is a desert area in the Andes, one of the driest places on earth. A study found that industrial production of asparagus in the valley is depleting the area’s water resources so fast that smaller farmers and local families are finding wells running dry. In some places, water levels have been dropping by eight meters a year.
This story shows that the issue of food’s water footprint is a complex and global one. And as the world population grows, so do the challenges. Some say water conflicts will be one of the defining issues of this century.
So what can we do? Environmental writer Tara Lohan suggests starting at waterfootprint.org, where you can measure your food’s water footprint. “Next,” she says, “start eating lower on the food chain, foods that are in season, and ones grown close to home that are produced sustainably. And most importantly, help bridge the gap between our food consciousness and our water consciousness.”
As an inveterate carnivore, let me add this. You don’t have to give up meat (I certainly don’t plan to), but reduce the amount of meat you eat. Have more meatless meals. Serve smaller portions. As Michael Pollan says, “Push meat a little bit to the side and move vegetables to the center.” Use meat as a flavoring rather than the star of a dish. Sometimes I’ll use less than half a pound of Italian sausage to flavor pasta with vegetables to serve four people; that’s less than two ounces of meat per person.
Know where your meat comes from. The best choice is to buy pasture-raised meat from small farmers. More and more these days, you can also find grass-fed beef in supermarkets. Not only is grass-fed meat healthier for you and better for the animal, when animals eat grass instead of feedlot grain, the water footprint is greatly reduced. To find sources for pasture-raised meat, dairy and eggs, visit the excellent website Eatwild.com.
And finally, get creative. Venture beyond the beef/chicken/pork defaults and try lamb or goat. Both are delicious and versatile and leave a much smaller footprint on the environment in general.
Okay, it’s your turn. Get involved. Visit some of the sites I’ve linked to here. Sign the petition below. Visit other bloggers participating in today’s Blog Action Day. Read. Comment. Take part in the conversation. There’s only so much water on the planet—we need to use it wisely to make it last for everyone.