From Cuba to California, 2015 has been a challenging year when it comes to water. Droughts—or sequías, in Spanish—have compelled us to acknowledge what we'd rather ignore: water is not a limitless resource and many of us are likely to face shortages sooner rather than later. While Cubans and Californians—and others living in drought-stricken spots—are forced to keep track of their water consumption and to limit it as much as possible, it's important for those of us who live in places where water at least seems more abundant to be cognizant of our use, too, and to look for ways to cut back.
This involves, in part, learning about how much water is required to grow some of our favorite foods; as the Water Footprint Network indicates, it's easy to overlook this part of our water footprint because the total amount of water used is typically invisible to the end consumer. Yet, according to National Geographic, 50% of Americans' water footprint goes to processing the food we eat. With that in mind, here's what you need to know to be a water-smart shopper.
Almonds have become the poster child for water waste, especially during California's drought. A widely shared article published by Mother Jones purported that “it takes about a gallon of water to grow one almond,” and since California provides 100% of domestically-grown almonds and 80% of the global supply, that's a whole lot of water-- more than the entire city of Los Angeles uses every three years, according to Mother Jones. And that's just for one harvest season. The state's Almond Board insists the nut has gotten a bad rap. Regardless, nuts are thirsty crops. Walnuts, for instance, require even more water than almonds, and pistachios are water-intensive, too-- all three of these nuts are grown in California.
Concerned about how your nut consumption contributes to drought? Some experts have suggested switching from almonds to hazelnuts, which in the U.S. are grown in Oregon's Willamette Valley, where average annual rainfall is 40-80 inches.
A single avocado requires an average of 60 gallons of water to make it to the shelf of your local bodega or supermarket. And, like almonds and some of your other favorite nuts, most of America's avocados are grown in drought-stricken California. Other domestic avocados are grown in Florida and Hawaii, though the US imports about 70% of the avocados we consume annually from Mexico and Chile. Factor an even bigger water footprint for the imported avocados, thanks to packaging and shipping.
You may not realize it, but the amount of water required to raise cattle and then bring it to market as beef for your dinner table is much higher than the amount of water needed to grow and harvest vegetable crops. According to Water Footprint Network, the average water footprint “per calorie for beef is 20 times larger than for cereals and starchy roots.” If you're not into the idea of switching to a plant-based diet, the Water Footprint Network suggests reducing your consumption of beef and increasing your consumption of other meats that require less water to raise. Sheep, pig, goat, and chickens (in that order) have smaller water footprints than cows.
It's an inconvenient truth, for sure: Every cup of coffee you drink requires, on average, 130 liters of water to produce. That's more than 34 gallons. Tea, by comparison, requires about 30 liters (or almost eight gallons) of water per serving. Switching from coffee to tea, then, has a significant impact on overall water consumption.
The water footprint of a single product can vary pretty dramatically from one region or country to another. Take olives as a prime example. Olives grown in and shipped from Spain have a water footprint that's almost three times smaller than olives from Tunisia. The lesson for the consumer? Know where your olives come from!
When it comes to water usage, corn seems like a relatively responsible crop: it takes 105-150 gallons of water to produce one pound of corn. But, say experts, don't be fooled: Since corn or one of its byproducts makes an appearance, one way or another, “in just about everything we eat, drink, wear, and drive,” the total water consumption required for corn production is extraordinarily high. Also, like olives, the total amount of water required for corn crops varies widely from one country to another. US corn crops require the least amount of water; corn grown in India requires the most.
Like corn, sugar is found in nearly everything we eat, particularly processed food, so its contribution to the total water footprint of the world is pretty high. The sugar we consume comes from two main sources: sugar cane and sugar beet; the former usually has a bigger water footprint than the latter, so if you have a choice, sugar from sugar beets is more responsible.
Rice is a staple on the Latin table; it's hard to imagine dinner without it. Yet consider the possibility that one day, you might have to eat your frijoles without this grain: it's responsible for a whopping 13% of the world's water footprint of crop production.