The Drought-Tolerant Diet: How Eating Your Veggies Positively Impacts Health, Environment & Economy
Mention the word “water” in California right now, and you’re asking for heated opinions. Nearly every aspect of our thirsty lives depends on the ever-limited liquid, from the trees we grow to shade our homes to the dishwasher that runs at our favorite restaurant. The biggest use of water comes from our everyday diets.
When it comes to saving water through our food choices, there are a number of factors to consider. On a scale of human priorities, water itself demands attention along with factors such as nutrition and jobs. If we consider the absolute best use of our precious water resources, these issues should be measured together—and they often point to a diet that includes more veggies.
Drop by drop, bite by bite, our food choices add up.
GROW YOUR OWN DESERT CROPS
Some edible plants are meant to withstand drought. A wide variety of delicious, vitamin-packed herbs, fruits and veggies can withstand the heat.
Rosemary, epazote, oregano, sage and thyme love the heat and require very little water.
Hearty varieties of leafy greens include New Zealand spinach, a thick-leaved, salty and less bitter plant. This is also a great choice when trying to avoid food waste: It remains firm and healthy for a few weeks when stored properly in your fridge. Certain varieties of amaranth also make great heat-loving greens.
Prickly pear cactus and the spineless nopal variety are an excellent source of fiber and vitamins and thrive in low-water conditions.
Tree fruits such as pomegranates and figs originate from arid climates and remain productive in times of drought.
Chiltepines, a spicy variety of chilies found in the Southwest, grow in the wild without cultivated water.
A host of squashes and veggies have been passed down for generations due to their resilience in desert-like environments. Seed catalog descriptions and nurseries can point you in the right direction.
NUTRITION PER DROP
Almonds and other thirsty nut crops have garnered attention for their high water consumption. But if you compare it to bigger water hogs (and cows), that source of protein isn’t nearly as big an offender as animal products.
It takes one gallon of water to produce a single nut. Compare that to the 106 gallons of water it takes to grow an ounce of beef. At 18 grams of protein found in a 3-ounce serving of nuts compared to 21 grams found in the same amount of beef, your health (and the planet’s) are better off on a diet of almonds.
Nationally renowned Chef Dan Barber writes about the impact of meat consumption on Earth in his book The Third Plate. He reimagines a planet-conscious plate that uses meat as a sauce — something to highlight the dish with flavor — rather than as a main course.
Nutritionists agree. In an unprecedented move, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, an expert panel convened every five years to retool the country’s food guidelines, made recommendations last winter that took the health of the planet into consideration alongside human health for the very first time. The panel recommended a plant-based diet for its healthy heart benefits and its lighter impact on the environment.
As the human population continues to explode and water becomes scarcer, the challenge will be finding the best use of every calorie we eat and grow.
WATER PER BITE
Eighty percent of our state’s water is used by agriculture to produce the food we, and others in our country and beyond, need to survive. Yet, we’re squandering these precious resources. We waste 30 to 40% of the U.S. food supply, which equals wasted water. Of that unused food, a full 19% is uneaten vegetables and another 19% unused dairy. In a state where nearly four million residents cannot afford food, we’re losing quality calories.
JOBS PER DROP
Our state’s agriculture is a $50 billion business. California earns more money from agriculture than any other state in the nation, which makes it one of our big employers. If you measure farm jobs by the amount of water it takes to produce our crops, you see some surprisingly similar trends: Animal products just don’t create jobs in comparison to the amount of water used.
In a recent study by UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, irrigated pasture, corn and alfalfa, which feeds the animals we eat, produced fewer than five jobs per thousand acre-feet of net water use. Contrast that with fruit and vegetable crops, which produce nearly 75 jobs for the same amount of water.
According to the study, “Vegetables, horticulture, fruits and nuts account for more than 90% of employment directly related to crop production.”
Not only do fruits and veggies create more jobs, they’re also harvesting more dollars for the state. Research shows that California earned $206 million in gross annual revenues from irrigated pasture, while fruit, veggie and horticulture yields were nearly $13 billion.
It literally pays to eat your veggies!