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Individual US diets show wide variation in water scarcity footprints

Abstract

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.

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Fig. 1: Geospatial analysis of water use and water scarcity impact in the continental US for tomatoes.
Fig. 2: Understanding the drivers of a diet’s WSF.
Fig. 3: Contributions by food group to quintiles of the total diet-related WSF.
Fig. 4: Contributions of specific foods to WSF for quintiles of the population.

Data availability

The water consumption and crop production data that support the findings of this study are available in Mendeley Data: https://doi.org/10.17632/brn4xm47jk.3. The NHANES dietary data that support the findings of this study are available from the National Center for Health Statistics, US Centers for Disease Control and Management: https://wwwn.cdc.gov/nchs/nhanes/. All other data are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

We thank G. Lewis for his assistance in generating the maps in Fig. 1, and R. Meyer for laying the groundwork for this study through his master’s thesis at the University of Michigan. This work is funded by the Wellcome Trust, grant number 106854/Z/15/Z.

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M.C.H., D.R. and G.A.K. designed the overall study. M.C.H. developed the methods for this research with input from G.A.K. and D.R. M.C.H., T.M. and A.W.-S. conducted the data analysis with input from D.R. and G.A.K. M.C.H. and D.R. led the interpretation of the data. M.C.H. wrote the first draft with input from D.R. and G.A.K. All authors contributed to a subsequent revision and approved the final version.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Martin C. Heller.

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Peer review information Nature Food thanks Tim Hess and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Tables 1–4, Fig. 1 and description of methods.

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Heller, M.C., Willits-Smith, A., Mahon, T. et al. Individual US diets show wide variation in water scarcity footprints. Nat Food 2, 255–263 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-021-00256-2

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