Your Slice Of Pizza Takes 42 Gallons Of Water To Make: 'Nexus Thinking’ Explains How Food, Water, And Energy Are Entwined

By Gabrielle Jonas on January 31, 2014 10:11 AM EST

Food That is never Eaten is Wasted Twice-Over
Because Americans throw away so much food, and because waste-treatment requires so much water, about a quarter of America's water goes to treating food that goes into the garbage. (Photo: Grace Communications Foundtion)

Next time you're making pizza dough, consider that the recipe really calls for 42 gallons of water. According to "nexus thinking" — a way of considering the total energy expenditure required to make and move an item from conception to absorption, and beyond, it does, says the Grace Communications Foundation, which has issued an e-pamphlet, "Meet the Nexus: How Food, Water and Energy are Connected."

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"Even a simple slice of pizza involves a global distribution network, industrial agriculture, fossil fuels and a lot of water," Grace says on its website. The organization strives to raise awareness of environmental and health problems associated with the American industrial food system.

To consider the nexus of a pizza, the person about to bite into one slice should be mindful of the water used to grow the wheat that's milled into flour (18 gallons); that's used to make the mozzarella (21 gallons); and that's sprinkled to grow the tomatoes that comprise the sauce (2.5 gallons). "You don't see this "hidden water" in your slice of pizza, but it's there," Grace Communications says in its pamphlet. It also wants consumers not only to consider the energy that goes directly into baking the pie (the water added to the flour and yeast to make dough), but there's also the "hidden energy" that goes into farming the crops — that of the tractors, the fossil fuels required to produce the fertilizers and pesticides, used on the wheat that makes the flour that makes the pie, and even the energy required to manufacture the pizza oven. Grace Communciations doesn't want those considerations to make anyone lose their appetite, though, because wasted food wastes energy even beyond the energy squandered that went into making it in the first place. It's not enough to consider what it costs to make food. Grace Communications wants people to consider what it costs to waste food, too.

Wastefulness is Even More Wasteful Than We Think

The average family in the U.S. is thought to waste about $2,275 a year — based on the fact that we know Americans throw 40 percent of their food in the trash every year. But that doesn't take into account the water required to process the garbage. By this calibration, Grace comes to the disturbing conclusion that about 25 percent of water consumed in the U.S. each year goes toward food that never gets eaten in the first place. "Meal planning is a great way to reduce food waste and to save water, energy and money," Grace recommends, requiring of the consumer, at this point, not sacrifice, but just thougtfulness. (Requests for sacrifice might come a decade later.)

At this point in its introduction to the American public, "nexus thinking" — considering the connections between what we consume and the energy and resources required to provide them — is a hyper-aware state that could be dizzying, but may prompt consumers to make choices that would be less demanding of our resources. "Our everyday food, water and energy choices have a profound effect on each other and the environment," Grace says. "The more we take these connections into consideration — call it "nexus thinking" — the better our chances will be of achieving a sustainable future."

Selling a Way of Looking at the World

With an eye toward trying to create a sustainable future, Grace is trying to make "nexus thinking" as familiar to Americans as it already is to many Europeans. They figure a seismic shift in the way Americans think is necessary before anything is asked of them. Conservation policy groups already see the terrible toll that water shortages are having in parts of Africa, for instance, and fear that population growth, along with its increasing food and product demands will stress the water availability globally to the max. Before then, Americans have to learn that reducing their water use is more involved than just not letting the faucet run — an anti-water waste campaign from prior decades that seems antiquated now.

The Stockholm Environment Institute, which also promotes "nexus thinking" for a sustainable future globally, estimates that "884 million people globally lack decent access to water" and that water use will increase by about 50 percent in the next 30 years. It also predicts that by then more than half the world population (approximately five billion people — "will be living in severe water stress." The Stockholm Institute is concerned that to meet present expectations of consumption, agricultural production would have to increase by about 70 percent by 2050.

"Such increases would have far-reaching implications for water and land resources," The Stockholm Institute says on its website. "Climate change is also likely to aggravate pressure on resources and so add to the vulnerability of people and ecosystems, particularly in water-scarce and marginal regions. A nexus approach is needed to help climate mitigation measures be more 'water smart', adaptation measures such as irrigation) to be less energy intensive,"

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