Food Choices Can Save Water

What to eat in a drought.

There is a limited supply of fresh water in America. It has been an especially urgent situation in the western part of the U.S. We know that California has had a serious drought and many other states are also experiencing water shortages. If you are concerned about the coming global water crisis, you might be interested in learning how much water specific foods take to grow, and learn to eat more of the foods that aren’t water hogs. This is a good effort to make in support of conserving water, but it might also become a necessity as droughts will affect the access and affordability of many of our favorite foods.

A recent study showed that most Americans have no idea how much water they use. (Answer: the average American uses 2,000 gallons of water a day, twice the global average). It makes sense that they also do not know how much water it takes to grow the foods they enjoy, even though the U.S. is one of the world’s biggest users of water. Since California grows the most food of any U.S. state, their droughts will have a serious impact on certain foods. 80% of California’s water is used to grow food. It is the country’s largest producer of the following foods: almonds, avocados, artichokes, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, lettuce, milk, onions, peppers, spinach, tomatoes, walnuts and grapes.

Wired magazine has produced a Guide to California Produce (see below).   So, what’s on the high water use list?


The major offenders:

Cattle take a great deal of water. One pound of beef requires 1,799 gallons of water to raise. Goats on the other hand, take 127 gallons of water. Pork requires 576 gallons of water and chicken requires 468 gallons.

One pound of chocolate requires 3,170 gallons of water- that’s terrible! Time to switch to licorice!

10% of California’s water is used to grow Almonds. Time to find another snack and switch from almond milk to rice or coconut milk. Nuts in general, particularly walnuts, require a lot of water. Pistachios need much less water and are nutritious.

One gallon of milk takes 880 gallons of water. One cup of milk takes 54.9 gallons of water. One gallon of wine requires 1,008 gallons of water.

One gallon of coffee requires 880 gallons of water, while a gallon of tea takes 128 gallons of water. Time to switch from coffee to tea.

Asparagus is basically a tube that sucks water. 1 oz. uses 2 ¼ gallons of water to grow.

One pound of rice requires 449 gallons of water. Rice production globally requires 21% of all water used for agriculture.

Now for the good news:

What to eat to save water – the low water consumption foods:

  • Fruit is a lower water consumption food group.   One apple requires 18 gallons of water and one orange requires 13 gallons of water.
  • One egg requires 53 gallons of water and while that sounds like a lot of water, it’s low water consumption compared to the foods listed above.
  • One slice of bread requires 11 gallons of water.
  • Leafy greens like escarole, spinach and lettuce require very little water to grow.
  • Cabbage, tomatoes, broccoli and carrots are also less water-intensive crops.
  • While nuts in general are high water intensity because they grow on trees, the pistachio consumes about 25% of what the other nuts consume.
  • Wild fish and free-range chicken are much better choices than beef or pork.
  • Potatoes and sweet potatoes take only 34 gallons per pound.
  • Grains from corn, and oats are good choices.
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How to eat to save water:

  • Steam your vegetables instead of boiling them.
  • Try eating meat only once a week and switch to fish and chicken.
  • Opt for pasture-raised products.
  • Stay away from processed foods which require great quantities of water and often include chemicals.  Choose natural foods like fruits, vegetables and leafy greens instead.
  • Drink your morning cup of coffee, but switch to tea the rest of the day.
  • Avoid most nuts especially nut milks and nut crackers – they are major water users.

There are three other future alternative food sources to be aware of:

  1. Today’s food crops have been adapted to be high-yield, and have lost the traits that helped them survive disease and a changing climate (including droughts). The heirloom and wild species of those plants still have that genetic diversity. Researchers are trying to conserve these wild and heirloom species in the hopes of crossbreeding them with their modern equivalents to reintroduce the resiliency of their forebears.  Important crops to reintroduce the survival traits to are maize, carrots, wheat and tomatoes, peanuts, sunflowers, potatoes, apples, beans, rice and bananas.
  1. Dry farming is a technique for growing crops through non-irrigated cultivation. It works in areas that have a rainy season that provides a significant annual rainfall followed by a dry season when the crops are cultivated using the stored moisture in the soil. California, Colorado and Oregon are three states practicing dry farming for a variety of crops.
  1. ASE friend Phoebe is a permaculture (also called edible forest gardening) gardener. Here is her description of what that is – “This is the way we all should be gardening: less water, no fertilizers, no pesticides, automatic compost that feeds the plants, insects and birds that feed and pollinate everything. It is also called “edible forest gardening” because it replicates the original forest gardens before humans interfered. So many perennials, and edible plants never required full sun. They did very well with 3-4 hours of sunlight that shone through the upper stories of the forest. We can reverse what we have done to these plants. They can adapt again to an edible forest environment with much less water.” To learn more read Edible Forest Gardens” Volume 1 by Dave Jackie with Eric Toensmeier.

If we are all in this effort together, as consumers we can change the demand/supply for those foods with a large water footprint by not buying them and shift demand to what we are buying which will be less water intensive crops.