Your morning coffee was made with an entire bathtub full of water.
That’s what it takes—about 40 gallons of water—to grow and ship the beans for just a single 8 ounce cup, black, no sugar. That’s 640 cups of water to produce the one cup of coffee. It boggles the mind.
When you say water conservation, most people think of low-flow shower heads and turning off the taps while they brush their teeth. But all the water you see going down the drain is a mere drop in the bucket compared to what we can’t see in our food. Household uses make up just 5% of the water we consume, while the food and drinks on our tables soak up 75% of the total. In fact an entire day’s worth of washing, brushing, and flushing doesn’t add up to the water contained in a single chicken drumstick.
A cup of coffee, a chicken leg; that’s just the beginning. Here are the water totals embedded in some of the foods that get you through your day:
Breakfast: orange juice, two eggs, and toast– 127 gallons
The juice of two oranges = 26 gallons (more if it’s commercially-processed juice)
Two eggs = 46 gallons
Two slices of bread, two teaspoons of butter = 55 gallons (butter’s a killer at around 50 gallons per tablespoon)
Lunch: grilled chicken breast sandwich, little bag of chips, iced tea with lemon and sugar– 209 gallons
chicken breast, bun, lettuce, condiments= 149 gallons (make it a cheeseburger and you’re looking at 673 gallons)
chips = 50 gallons
iced tea= 14 gallons (better than a 16 ounce Coke at 66 gallons)
You’ll think twice about an afternoon snack when you realize that a single serving of peanut M&M’s requires an eye-popping 500 gallons of water in its production and transport.
Dinner: steak, corn on the cob with butter, salad with avocado, red wine– 891 gallons
6 ounces of beef = 700 gallons (if only we ate more goat; the water used to produce 6 ounces of beef would get you 6 pounds of goat meat!)
1 ear of corn plus 1 teaspoon of butter = 54 gallons
lettuce, ½ tomato, ¼ avocado, vinaigrette dressing = 117 gallons (it’s mostly the water-intensive olive oil in the dressing)
2 glasses of California wine = 80 gallons
Add in another coffee, maybe some ice cream or a handful of cookies before bed, and over the course of a single day the water contained in a typical American diet will fill and refill that bathtub 38 times.
Generally speaking, plant-based foods are produced with less water than animal products because meat and dairy items are embedded with the water of all the grains that were used as feed. Grass-fed and foraging animals are vastly more efficient and sustainable than water-guzzling, industrially-raised, grain-fed varieties, but pound for pound, animal products have a larger water footprint than crop products. The same is true when we look at the water usage per calorie or protein contained in the food product.
Where the food comes from also matters. India’s tea industry relies on irrigation while Sri Lanka’s tea plants are fed by abundant monsoon rains. Israel grows especially thirsty crops in the desert but does so with reclaimed seawater and the world’s most efficient irrigation. Still, when you realize it takes nearly 30 gallons of water to make a single chocolate Hershey’s Kiss, the fact that cocoa beans grow in rain-fed tropics is less compelling.
Here in the U.S. where fresh water is so plentiful and well-managed, we tend to overlook just how precious and valuable it is. Water is a scarce resource in many parts of the world, and as our food system grows ever more globalized, water shortages elsewhere become our food security problem. Add in the uncertainty of a future marked by global climate changes, and it’s a good bet that water will become an increasingly important component in both domestic and global affairs.