You’re already pretty savvy about the environmental significance of water. You know that fresh water is a finite resource and that Americans use a lot of it for things that don’t matter in the grand scheme of evolution—vast tracts of suburban lawns, fountains in Las Vegas, etc.
You turn the faucet off when you brush your teeth and perhaps even contribute to charities that bring clean water to poor people in developing countries. You eat low on the food chain because it’s better for your own health as well as the health of the planet. However, a good barbecue every now and then is a beautiful thing.
Now it’s time to learn about your water footprint. Like your carbon footprint, which measures your greenhouse gas output from your lifestyle (how far you drive, how much energy you consume, etc.), your water footprint measures how much water usage you are responsible for, not only for obvious things like toilet flushes and showers (illustrated below; this is known as your direct water footprint), but also for the things you consume and buy (known as your indirect water footprint). How much water did it take to grow that orange you’re eating? How much water was involved in the industrial processes that resulted in that Prius you’re driving?
The part of your indirect water footprint that you have the most control over is the part comprised of what you eat. No surprise here—a pound of meat takes oodles more water to create than a single orange. But just how much more? Here’s where you can scour the Internet for a meaningful infographic and not come up with anything overtly satisfying. There’s this:
It’s factual, but not very interesting. What we need is something that really drives home the point. So I decided to put together my own infographic that visually represents the water needed to grow various foods, using data from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
Here it is:
Now that’s information! Basically, the water footprint of a slice of bread, an orange, or a cup of coffee is infinitesimal next to the giant stomp of a hamburger. If those gallons of hamburger water were used for a swimming pool instead, you could do the backstroke in them.
Furthermore, to make sure the graph fit on this page, I used the lowest water estimate for hamburger. The USGS gives hamburger a water footprint range of between 4,000 gallons and 18,000 gallons of water for a single patty—hold the bacon, hold the cheese. This huge variance depends on where in the world the cattle are raised and numerous other factors. Let’s assume this burger is the product of a steer from a run-of-the-mill Texas cattle ranch, and not some pampered Kobe steer from Japan.
But where are the other foods? Yeah, chicken is there, at a relatively modest 500 gallons for a pound of meat, and the egg clocks in next to the chicken at 50 gallons—if you can squint maybe you see it. That’s 150 gallons of water for a brunch-sized omelet. But where is coffee (35 gallons per cup), orange juice (13 gallons per glass), and bread (10 gallons per slice)?
Well friends, they’re there. I input the numbers in Excel myself. But that’s the glory of this infographic: The discrepancy between staples like bread and orange juice and red meat is astronomical, even though a gallon of orange juice and a pound of hamburger are nearly equivalent in price. Their water footprint is not reflected in what we pay for them.
While water footprint statistics are certainly handy for the environmentally conscious among us, they also have real and significant ramifications on a geopolitical level. Each country or region has finite water resources, or water budgets, that may or may not be sufficient for its population to feed itself and live sustainability. What does this mean for a country like China, for instance, which has transformed hundreds of millions of people from vegetarians (out of necessity) into carnivores (out of preference) as its economic fortunes have skyrocketed—even as it remains one of the most water-scarce countries in the world?
The water footprint is a handy concept that allows us to see the ramifications of our choices, both as individuals and as nations in the global community. For more information on the water footprints of different kinds of food, check out this chart from Waterfootprint.org.
Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.