Five ways American can save water through food choices

The United States is one of the world’s biggest users of water: An American who takes a five-minute shower uses more water than the typical person living in a slum in the developing world uses all day. And water resources in the US are shrinking. In the last five years, there have been water shortages in almost every part of the country, including the worst drought in at last 25 years, which hit 80 percent of the country’s farmland in 2012. Even worse, the damaged land won’t fully recover this year, and at least 36 states are expecting local, regional, or statewide water shortages, even without drought.

The Natural Resources Defense Council expects water scarcity to affect the American South, West, and Midwest the most. Fourteen states in these regions already have “extreme” or “high” risk of water scarcity. Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Nevada, and Texas face the most danger because they are expected to see some of the largest increases in population by 2030. Water scarcity is also about more than lack of water; it’s about lack of drinkable water. It is estimated that as many as 53.6 million Americans have contaminated tap water.

As eaters and consumers, Americans can profoundly reduce water waste and water consumption through the food choices they make. Recent research from the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition shows that a healthful diet and environmentally sustainable diet can go hand in hand. Here are five ways American food consumers can help save water.

1.Eat less meat

Village boys bathe with water from a hand pump on World Water Day on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar, India, March 22. The UN estimates that more than 1 in 6 people worldwide do not have access to enough safe freshwater a day to meet their basic needs.Op-ed contributor Danielle Nierenberg suggests five ways Amercican food consumers can help save water. (Biswaranjan Rout/AP)

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Foundation, it takes nearly 10 times as much water to produce a kilogram of beef as it does to produce the same amount of wheat. Switching from a meat-centered weekly menu to a diet rich in vegetables and grains could save 2,500 liters of water a day. Choosing grass-fed meat can also save water because pasture requires less irrigation than feed crops to maintain.

Danielle Nierenberg is a food and agriculture expert and co-founder of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank.

Steam veggies instead of boiling them

In general, steaming vegetables uses less water than boiling, and according to a study in the Journal of Food Quality, it is more nutritious. For example, boiling corn on the cob in a large pot may use six to eight quarts of water, whereas steaming only uses one to two quarts. If you must boil, save the water for your garden, soup stock, or use it to help clean pots.

Provide support for small-scale, family farms

Agricultural subsidies in the US disproportionately support large-scale agribusinesses over the small-scale producers that are more likely to be engaged in sustainable food production, and may be more challenged by drought or commodity-price fluctuations. Changes in government support services could reduce this deficit and improve food and water security.

Streamline water use in home gardens

During the summer months, the US Environmental Protection Agency reports that nearly 40 percent of household water is used for watering lawns and gardens. National Geographic suggests incorporating native plants into your garden that are adapted to the local climate and often require less water.

Manually watering plants, instead of using automatic sprinklers, cuts water use by 33 percent, according to a report by the EPA. Consumers can also buy self-watering planters, or use rain barrels that can save them up to 1,300 gallons of water.

Reduce food – and water – waste

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that nearly one third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted throughout production, storage, transportation, consumption, and disposal. Water is an essential input in food production, and when we throw away food, we’re also wasting water. Eleven trillion gallons of water is lost to food waste annually in the US. This is the equivalent of about 16.6 million Olympic-sized swimming pools.

According to a report by the NRDC, eliminating food waste would save a quarter of all freshwater used in the US each year. Learn about your food’s shelf life and how long you can store food in your freezer. Other ways to reduce food waste are only buying what you plan to eat, using leftovers to create new meals, or donating food you can’t use to soup kitchens.

It’s more important than ever that on this World Water Day, Americans find ways to save every drop.

Danielle Nierenberg is a food and agriculture expert and co-founder of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank.