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The impact of nutrient-rich food choices on agricultural water-use efficiency


When distributed equally, the total amount of food produced worldwide could sufficiently meet current global demand. Still, malnutrition in the form of nutrient deficiencies continues to prevail in both low- and high-income countries. At the same time, natural resource use for agriculture is reaching or exceeding environmental boundaries. By integrating a comprehensive micronutrient scoring method with data on agricultural water demand, this analysis aims to re-evaluate the global water-use efficiency of dietary nutrient production. A stronger reliance on more nutrient-dense foods could lead to higher water-use efficiencies, though dietary water footprints were likely to increase overall. With a more detailed focus on plant and animal foods, we find that most dietary protein sources show comparable water-use efficiencies, and thus can be drivers for agricultural water demand. Animal foods, besides having a unique nutrient profile, often do not compete directly with crops for the same water resources. However, a significant reduction in the demand for utilizable freshwater resources could be achieved by reducing the amount of feed crops in ruminant diets.

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Fig. 1: NCS for 24 food groups.
Fig. 2: Global average water-use efficiency per litre net water use.
Fig. 3: Micronutrient content and water demand per gram of protein.
Fig. 4: Comparing global water demands for major dietary protein sources.
Fig. 5: Water footprint of 24 main food groups.

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Data availability

The data generated from this analysis are included in this published article and its Supplementary information. Additional data from the Supplementary Information are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.


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We would like to thank M. Mekonnen (University of Nebraska) for his support with this analysis. The authors would like to acknowledge financial support from the CSIRO Science Leaders Programme.

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Authors and Affiliations



K.D. and M.H. conceived the project. K.D. developed the analysis approach. K.W., M.H. and K.D. contributed to the study outline. K.D. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Kerstin Damerau.

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Supplementary Figures 1–6, Supplementary References 1–13

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Supplementary Tables 1–4

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Damerau, K., Waha, K. & Herrero, M. The impact of nutrient-rich food choices on agricultural water-use efficiency. Nat Sustain 2, 233–241 (2019).

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