Virtual Water: Water For Food

Most US health professionals understand by now that the average American diet is seriously out of control. Both in quantity and quality we’re way off the mark. And the direct results are soaring levels of childhood obesity in the young and an ever expanding burden of chronic disease in adults. And US based multi-national food companies (just like the tobacco companies) are fast at work now marketing the American diet to the developing world. (1)

What doctors and nurses and other health professionals generally don’t know is that there is a second important reason for them to advocate for a new American diet – grown close to home with more grains, vegetables and fruit and less meat. That reason is over consumption of scarce water. (2)  While an individual American consumes 3 liters (.8 gallons) of water a day, delivering the average American daily diet consumes 3000 liters (793 gallons). Ever bit of what we eat has a water footprint. (3)  Food is in fact “virtual water”. (4)

The water story behind meat includes not only the water they drink, but also the water needed to grow the grain they eat and the water necessary to clean barns of manure. (5) The same is true for pork and chicken.  If you follow the meat chain one step further to sausage or cheese or eggs, you consume more water in the process. Here are a few examples:

MEAT

Beef (1 pound) = 1,857 gallons of water consumed

Pork (1 pound) =  756 gallons of water consumed

Chicken (1 pound) = 469 gallons of water consumed

Sausage (1 pound) =  1,382 gallons of water consumed

Processed Cheese (1 pound) = 589 gallons of water consumed

Eggs (1 pound) = 400 gallons of water consumed

Yogurt (1 pound) = 138 gallons of water consumed

Now lets compare to fruits and vegetables and beverages:

FRUIT

Bananas (1 pound) = 103 gallons of water consumed

Apples (1 pound) = 84 gallons of water consumed

Grapes (1 pound) = 78 gallons of water consumed

Oranges (1 pound) = 55 gallons of water consumed

Strawberries (1 pound) = 33 gallons of water consumed

VEGETABLES

Avocados (1 pound) = 154 gallons of water consumed

Corn (1 pound) = 109 gallons of water consumed

Beans (1 pound) = 43 gallons of water consumed

Potatoes (1 pound) = 31 gallons of water consumed

Eggplant (1 pound) = 25 gallons of water consumed

BEVERAGES

Milk (1 glass) = 53 gallons of water consumed

Coffee (1 cup)  = 37 gallons of water consumed

Wine (1 glass) = 32 gallons of water consumed

Beer (1 glass)  = 20 gallons of water consumed

Tea (1 cup) = 9 gallons of water conumed

What should be clear to all by now is that our diet choices in the US (largely unopposed by doctors, nurses and health professionals) not only increase disease levels but also cause us to consume 10 times more water (from food alone) then we should. So what? Well, here are five reasons for caring professionals to get involved in the “virtual water” issue:

1. We are already experiencing severe water shortages in some areas of the US.

2. Over consumption of water negatively impacts energy independence. Moving large amounts of water, whether for commencial irrigation or residential use, consumes enormous amounts of energy.

3. Big water foods (meat and processed products) in excess adversely affect health and productivity.

4. When we purchase the wrong foods and reward Big Food manufacturers, we are laying the ground work for the marketing of an unhealthy and wasteful diet to the developing world.

5. Understanding the concept of “virtual water” (water is food and food is water) healps us appreciate that achieving individual, family and planetary health requires an enlightened and integrated approach to decision making and problem solving.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee.

References:

1. Magee M. Healthy Waters: What Every Health Professional Should Know About Water. 2007. Spencer Books, NY, NY. www.spencerbooks.com

2. Hoekstra AY and Hhapagain AK. Globalization of Water. Wiley Interscience. 2008.http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/bookhome/117948230?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0

3. Water Footprint Network. http://www.waterfootprint.org/?page=cal/WaterFootprintCalculator

4. http://www.healthy-waters.org

5. Water: Our Thirsty World. National Geographic. April, 2010.http://www.nationalgeographic.com/zinio/freshwater/?of=500204101&bd=1