Water Footprints & Food

It’s not really “in” to be concerned with your water footprint. A Google search of the phrase “water footprint” retrieves 8 times fewer results than a search for “carbon footprint” (723,000 compared to 8.5 million).  Even in the dialogues I’ve had of water conservation most focus on reducing water use at home: take shorter showers, use a basin to wash dishes by hand, turn off the faucet while I brush my teeth, etc. With all the hullaballoo centered on household water use, it must have the most impact on reducing our water footprint, right?

Wrong. Only 4% of the water footprint of humanity relates to water use at home, meanwhile 27% is related to the production of animal products.  (Mekonnen and Hoekstra, 2011).

This means that if you want to make a significant effort to reduce your water use you can start by decreasing your consumption and purchase of animal products and byproducts. The quarter pounder is worth more than 30 average American showers (National Geographic). Forget for a second that I’m vegetarian; personally, I would choose being clean for a month or two over a 5-minute inhalation of beef.

  • The average water footprint per calorie for fruits or cereals is 20 times smaller than that for beef and 3 times smaller than that for chicken.
  • Producing a typical American Thanksgiving dinner for six people requires over 30,000 gallons of water.
  • Pork costs water to produce, and traditional pork production—to make your sausage, bacon, and chops—has also been the cause of some water pollution, as pig waste runs into local water sources.
  • California officials identify agriculture, including cows, as the major source of nitrate pollution in more than 100,000 square miles of polluted groundwater
  • On average, a person who doesn’t eat meat or dairy indirectly consumes nearly 600 gallons of water per day less than a person who eats the average American diet.

Water conservation is not a local or regional issue— it’s global. The food consumed in Boston could determine the water footprint of a cocoa farm in Brazil or a cheese factory in Wisconsin. The decision to cut out meat and dairy is not all insignificant and will not only help water conservation efforts around the globe, but also reduce the negative consequences that production of animal products have on the environment and by default our own health.


Hoekstra, A. Y., A. K. Chapagain, M. M. Aldaya, and M. M. Mekonnen. 2011. The Water Footprint Assessment Manual: Setting the Global Standard. Earthscan, London, UK

Hoekstra, A. Y. 2012. The Hidden Water Resource Use behind Meat and Dairy.

Natural Resources Defense Council