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Individual U.S. diets show wide variation in water scarcity footprints

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Full Publication Date
April 15, 2021

Agriculture accounts for 80% of global freshwater consumption but the environmental impacts of water use are highly localized and depend on water scarcity. The water use impacts of food production should be a key consideration of sustainable diets, yet little is known of the water scarcity demands of diets, especially of individuals. Here we estimate the water scarcity footprint (WSF)—a water use impact metric that accounts for regional scarcity—of individual diets in the United States (n = 16,800) and find a fivefold variation between the highest and lowest quintile of diets ranked by WSF. Larger intakes of some meat, fruit, nuts and vegetables drive these differences. Meat consumption is the greatest contributor (31%) to the WSF of the average diet, and within that, beef contributes about six times that of chicken. Variation between substitutable foods provides insight into diet shifts that can reduce WSF. We introduce a novel, geospatially explicit approach that combines the types and quantities of foods in the diets of individuals, the irrigation water required to produce those foods and the relative scarcity of water where that irrigation occurs.

Amelia Willits-Smith
Diego (Donald) Rose
Research Areas
Food & Agriculture
Food Systems and Consumer Products
agriculture, environmental impacts, water resources
Publication Type
Journal Article
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Full Citation
Heller, Martin C., Willets-Smith, Amelia, Tara Mahon, Gregory A. Keoleian, and Donald Rose (2021) “Individual U.S. diets show wide variation in water scarcity footprints.” Nature Food 2(4): 255-263.