Worth Your Weight in Water
As temps rise, and water levels fall in many parts of the country, people are being asked and sometimes forced to respond to water shortages. Essential to our survival, and often taken for granted, water now occupies much of the public environmental stage, as well as household conversation. This flavorless and historically overlooked resource fuels our bodies, provides home and safe passage to many river, lake and ocean creatures, cleans our clothes and bodies, and is the magic that brings seed and soil together to germinate our food supply. Whether it’s plants like squash or lettuce that provide direct sources of nourishment, or indirect sources like alfalfa and grains used to feed farm animals, without water we’re up a very dry sh** creek.
As conscious consumers, how then do we make good choices about using this increasingly limited and valuable resource? Many news stories share alarming statistics about the amount of water used to grow a variety of foods. Almonds, avocados and alfalfa always make their way into the top 10 of water hogging crops. The metrics are numerous, such as the amount of water it takes to produce an ounce of a certain food, water consumed per gram of protein produced, number of dollars the crop earns per gallon of water used, etc. These are important tracking tools, but there are additional factors to consider, that seem to be off the radar.
Current publications define and measure the “water footprint” of food in various ways. Most of these discussions end at harvesting the food. What about after harvest? How much water does it take to prepare and hold the food for sale? Most produce needs a good bath between field and table. If sold in a grocery, a decent percentage of fresh produce receives gentle misting multiple times a day. If the product has been canned, the water used in that process is significant – keeping the food clean, keeping the factory clean, and the water added to the product in the can. Then, consider whether or not the food requires water to be edible for human consumption or does it come out of the field essentially ready to eat? Grains, beans and rice are good examples of products that demand a drink to be edible, often at a 2:1, water to dry product ratio. Thirsty.
On the pre-harvest side, the growing part of the equation, it’s interesting to consider if the plant is annual or perennial. Are the studies quoting the amount of water consumed per ounce of food produced using first year food data or plant lifetime? Almond trees, citrus and fruit trees, berry bushes, rhubarb and grape vines take some time to establish, and produce food. After that, with a little lower water amounts, they can provide years and years of flavor and nourishment. Lettuce, squash, tomatoes, storage onions, carrots, corn and peas are examples of foods that must be started from seed and watered generously each year to get established, and not all of them thrive and produce.
Perhaps the most compelling things to consider, as a consumer trying to make “responsible” water-conscious food purchases, are waste and nutritional value. For example, one fruit higher on the water intensity scale – the avocado – is tasty and good food for you , however it has a narrow window of being fit for consumption, going from rock hard to gray and mushy in a week’s time. Its highly perishable nature means many go to waste on kitchen counters, and grocery store shelves. Unlike some other perishable produce like tomatoes or apples or corn, avocados are not conducive to canning, freezing or processing into soup or some other product that can be held longer term. The recently vilified water-hogging almond on the other hand, is also very nutritious but has the advantage of being highly shelf stable, offering nourishment for months and up to a couple of years, if stored appropriately.
If the water is invested in the first place, we should treasure, protect and eat the resulting food. With over 40% of what food is produced today ending up in the waste stream, that’s a significant water crime. The average person can help by purchasing only what s/he can reliably eat before it goes bad. And by being attentive to ways to extend the food life of products like butter, bread or nuts, by putting half of it in the freezer until you need it. And planning multiple uses for perishables, like turning tomatoes into salsa, bbq sauce or just blanching and freezing them for a future meal. Find ways to be creative about using more of the plant. For instance, the curly tops of some varieties of garlic are typically thrown away. These garlic scapes are perfectly delicious pickled, or blended into pesto or any number of creative dishes. Go the extra step.
Yes, some foods take more water to produce than others. But, it’s food. It keeps us alive. There are far more questionable uses of water – golf courses, lawns, car washes, people who shower 2-3 times a day, running toilets, etc. – than to produce food.
Ultimately, we shouldn’t waste the food that is produced. People are hungry. Water is increasingly scarce. While countless guides are being distributed to assist the concerned shopper on which foods s/he can purchase that take less water to grow, the real issue is being careful to buy just what you can use, especially with fresh highly perishable products. Give excess to a friend or neighbor. Don’t leave left-overs at restaurants; either order less, share a meal or get a to-go box for lunch the next day. If we waste less of it, we’ll need less of it, and economics will work to provide less of it. Water will ultimately be conserved. And if not, thankfully beer and wine are water-resource friendly per ounce, so there’s something handy to drown our sorrows.