Plant-Based Diets: A Key to Water Conservation

A drop of water hangs from the end of a blade of grass.

One of the many benefits of a plant-based diet is water conservation. With water scarcity becoming a growing concern worldwide, it’s essential to understand how our diet impacts our water usage. As a recipient of the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts 2022 Sustainable Business of the Year Award, we here at Nüssli118° recognize that we have the power to make a positive impact on the environment through our food choices. 

We’ve written about some of the many health benefits of a plant-based diet. They’ve been proven to reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. They’ve also been shown to have positive impacts on our mental health. In this article, we’ll explore the relationship between plant-based diets and water conservation. By the end, we hope you’ll  have a better understanding of the impact our food choices have on water resources and how adopting a plant-based diet can contribute to a more sustainable future. Join us on this journey towards a healthier, happier and more sustainable world.

Clear water flows is poured into a pair of cupped, brown-skinned hands.

Water is essential for life and therefore a vital resource. It’s also exhaustible. Research indicates that “today, in some areas of the planet, about eight hundred thousand people lack access to sufficient and safe water, and about three billion people are not benefitting from adequate sanitation. Some experts have also observed that there is a significant decline in the availability of fresh water, and it results in harmful effects on human health.” And the impact of water scarcity goes far beyond our individual lives, it affects everything from energy production to agriculture. 

When it comes to agriculture, plants have a higher water-use efficiency compared to animals. Consuming a diet focused on fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains while excluding or minimizing animal products is one of the most effective ways to reduce water usage since they require significantly less water than meat-based diets. For example, it takes around 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, while it only takes around 42.5 gallons of water to produce one pound of vegetables. 

A person wearing latex gloves pulls water into a dropper with one hand while holding a small brown bottle in the other.

The environmental impact of meat consumption is significant, with animal agriculture being one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution. In their study of the impact of animal farming on water quality, scientists Cesoniene, Dapkiene and Sileikiene concluded that  “the most dangerous pollution sources are intensive agricultural activity and livestock farming, whose production waste has a negative impact on soil and water quality.” Animal agriculture contributes to water pollution through the runoff of manure and excess fertilizers into rivers and water bodies. Animal waste can contain pathogens such as E. coli; hormones; antibiotics; chemicals such as nitrates; and heavy metals like copper. These contaminants not only affect surface water, they can also enter the groundwater and contaminate drinking water. By reducing our consumption of meat, we contribute to minimizing the pollution of water sources, promoting cleaner and healthier ecosystems.

It’s also important to recognize the intrinsic link between biodiversity and water resources. Biodiversity plays a crucial role in supporting water resources by aiding in nutrient cycling in soil and plants. This process directly impacts water quality by controlling the amount of pollutants that end up in water sources. On the other hand, water resources support biodiversity by providing the necessary hydration that species need to thrive. Without sufficient water availability, species are put under stress, which can lead to biodiversity loss. 

In the foreground, the crystal clear water of a river reveals rocks and pebbles. Trees with vibrant, green leaves and hills rise in the background.

Shifting towards a plant-based diet helps alleviate the strain on freshwater resources. With increasing global water scarcity, conserving water by adopting a plant-based diet can contribute to the preservation of freshwater ecosystems and ensure adequate supplies for future generations. By embracing a plant-based diet, you can make a positive impact on water conservation efforts and play a role in mitigating the environmental challenges associated with water scarcity. Let’s work together to create a more sustainable world for ourselves and for generations to come.

Sources 

“Plant-Based Diets: Be Healthier while Reducing Your Water Footprint”, https://cleanwater.org/2020/11/19/plant-based-diets-be-healthier-while-reducing-your-water-footprint

Tompa, Orsolya et al. “Is the Sustainable Choice a Healthy Choice?-Water Footprint Consequence of Changing Dietary Patterns.” Nutrients vol. 12,9 2578. 25 Aug. 2020, doi:10.3390/nu12092578

Vettori, Virginia, Chiara Lorini, Bianca Bronzi, and Guglielmo Bonaccorsi. 2021. "Water Global Health Benefit: The Water Footprint of the Dietary Patterns and the Acceptability of a 100% Plant-Based Diet" Medical Sciences Forum 4, no. 1: 33. https://doi.org/10.3390/ECERPH-3-09058 

Francesca Harris and others, The Water Footprint of Diets: A Global Systematic Review and Meta-analysis, Advances in Nutrition, Volume 11, Issue 2, March 2020, Pages 375–386, https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmz091

“The Case for Plant Based”, https://www.sustain.ucla.edu/food-systems/the-case-for-plant-based/

“A Vegan Diet: Eating for the Environment”, https://www.pcrm.org/good-nutrition/vegan-diet-environment

“Healthy plant-based diets better for the environment than less healthy plant-based diets”, https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/healthy-plant-based-diets-better-for-the-environment-than-less-healthy-plant-based-diets/ 

“‘Did You Know’ Series: How Much Water Are We Actually Using?”, https://www.vwrrc.vt.edu/2022/03/31/did-you-know-series-how-much-water-are-we-actually-using/

Cesoniene L, Dapkiene M, Sileikiene D. The impact of livestock farming activity on the quality of surface water. Environ Sci Pollut Res Int. 2019 Nov;26(32):32678-32686. doi: 10.1007/s11356-018-3694-3. Epub 2018 Nov 22. PMID: 30467746.


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