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carbon footprint

Why Water Footprint Will Replace Carbon Footprint

We are Entering a Water Economy
"We are entering a water economy," said Barbara Buchner, Director of the Climate Policy Initiative in Venice. No matter how you slice it, the pie of resources is dwindling, with ever more people vying for resources. This theme resurfaced in many sessions, through different expert eyes, but all converging on the same point: the cost and availability of food and drinks is poised to shift dramatically in the years to come.

The 20th century opened with just over 1.5 billion inhabitants, but it closed on the threshold of 6 billion. And if population projections are accurate, by 2050 (which is a mere 38 years away) there will be 9 billion people. What this means is that population growth, growing prosperity of billions, changing global diets, urbanization and biofuels are all increasingly connected to what Americans eat and how much they pay for it. A look at a map of World Water Stress and one quickly sees that water is going to be the defining issue for China and India, even the US- and that the era of limitless amounts of cheap water to produce food and beverages is rapidly drawing to a close.

Why Our Water Footprint is Growing
As people seek more sophisticated diets, the water footprint increases exponentially: Drinking tap water may be a straightforward trade (1 liter tap water requires 1 liter of water), but when you shift to bottled beverages the water footprint multiplies quickly: According to Buchner, the water footprint of 1 liter of bottled water is 5 liters of water, while the water footprint of 1 liter of soda is between 340-620 liters of water. As billions of people worldwide gain upward mobility to the middle class, they too are going want to buy these things, but where is this water going to come from? With this increase in demand but relatively fixed supply, the cost of water, experts warn, is set to increase dramatically. And food that used to be cheap (like a 99 cent hamburger) likely won’t be (as it takes 15,000 liters of water to produce 1 kg of beef, the highest of any foodstuff).

To be sure, the global mishmash of cuisines and influences is exciting for the culinary world. Janet Helm recently wrote a fab blog on 2012 restaurant trends, noting that “cooking is at a crossroads where everything collides.” While foodies rejoice, it also underscores just how hyperconnected our food systems have become.

The question is: how do we constructively, meaningfully engage Americans in the dialogue about diet, especially in light of the myriad other crisis the world is facing? Is a true paradigm shift even possible? And what are the best levers to push? (In America it seems like we should shift the upcoming 2012 Farm Bill to make the right foods cheap like fruits and veggies, as opposed to the wrong ones like high fructose corn syrup).

But still I see hope. While the global diet is at a crossroads, through my nutrition lens I see that much of what makes for ultimately healthy eating is also more water wise.

Here are six ways you can shrink your water footprint (and your waistline) at the table:

  • Eat whole unprocessed foods, drink tap water.
  • Enjoy a diet that has lots and lots of plant foods, with small amounts of meat and dairy products.
  • Snack on real foods, not "snack food"
  • Support local farmers and eat seasonally, locally and regionally to the extent you can
  • Get cooking! Turn off the TV cooking shows where food is a spectator sport, and cook.
  • Take less, waste less at the dinner table. As conference presenter Jonathan Bloom beautifully stated, "A clean plate makes for a clean conscience".

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