Everything that we eat has an impact on the environment in one way or another. While purchasing organic food is one of the best ways that we can vote with our wallet, there are other determining factors of sustainability. One important, and often neglected, factor is how much water is used to produce food, especially in an area like California that suffers periods of extreme drought. Limiting our consumption of foods that are especially water intensive can result in a lower environmental impact. Unfortunately, you may be a little surprised to learn that a few of these water-guzzling foods are key staples in your diet.
Agriculture accounts for about 80% of water use in the United States. Shocking, I know. And not all farmers are the best stewards of the environment in terms of water use. Although overall global efforts by farmers to preserve water through measures like rainwater collection and drip irrigation seem to be increasing, it is still important to be aware which crops use the most water and why this is unsustainable.
One gallon of water per almond
While Animal products account for a significantly larger portion of water use than most all plant-based products, there’s a major exception: almonds. Almonds require year-round watering. A single almond requires nearly one gallon of water! According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the Golden State produces 80% of the world’s almond supply. The industry is driven by high profits from exporting to countries like China, and like most everything in our food system, the industry is motivated principally by profitability, not the health and well-being of people and the environment.
Not all meat is equal
Of all the meat we consume, beef requires the most water. Factory farmed animals are fed massive amounts of animal feed including alfalfa, corn, wheat, and soy – all extremely water-intensive crops themselves. In California, alfalfa is the most water intensive source of animal feed, and the majority of it grown goes to feed animals. This is a completely inefficient use of resources. In California, river water is the primary source of agricultural irrigation water, and a recent study shows that wild salmon are competing against these crops for water. River irrigation may sound sustainable when done in moderation, but the overuse has led to low stream levels and a decline in wild salmon populations.
We make decisions every day, and choosing what we eat is one that has a much more significant impact on our planet than many realize. Food choices affect not just our bodies, but our environment.
Making the most ethical purchase in the grocery store isn’t always easy. You may ask yourself a range of questions before checking out…do I buy the organic but imported fruit? Or the non-organic but local fruit? In this case, it can feel like a catch 22 choosing between a non-organic fruit that was probably sprayed with pesticides versus an organic one that was imported from hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Sometimes it can feel like we’re doomed!
It’s alright not to have the right answer every time. But this is just some “food for thought” the next time you reach for the large pack of ground beef or the 12-pack case of almond milk. Think about incorporating some plant-based meals into to your week. Or replacing beef that week for wild caught fish, and giving coconut milk a go instead of almond milk. Maybe try to eat as many local foods as possible that are in season to switch your diet up! Small changes can decrease your consumption of year-round crops and meats that rely on excessive amounts of water.