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Lettuce Is the Bottled Water of Produce

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Another day, another story about what we should consume when confronted with a water-scarce future. On today’s chopping block: Lettuce, should you eat it? Let us begin with this provocative statement: A head of iceberg contains the same amount of water as a bottle of Evian, it’s wrapped in lots of plastic, and shipping it around the world is just as awful for the environment.

Over at the Washington Post, Tamar Haspel makes a great argument for kicking your iceberg habit in a rant called “Why Salad Is So Overrated.” Besides the fact that the whole process of preventing the leaves from becoming warm and limp uses a ton of energy, lettuce also requires enormous amounts of water to grow and is very labor-intensive, all while providing zero nutritional value:

Lettuce is a vehicle to transport refrigerated water from farm to table. When we switch to vegetables that are twice as nutritious — like those collards or tomatoes or green beans — not only do we free up half the acres now growing lettuce, we cut back on the fossil fuels and other resources needed for transport and storage.


In fact, the four least nutrient-dense vegetables one can eat all require quite a bit of water to grow, because, surprise, they’re mostly water: cucumbers, radishes, iceberg lettuce and celery. (Now that would make a great salad!) The idea is that switching to more nutritious greens like collards, kale, cabbage—anything that provides a little more caloric value and doesn’t need to stay ice-cold after harvest—would give us more bang for our buck, water-wise.

This would be a good time for farmers to make that switch since California grows about 80 percent of all the US’s lettuce, and drought means that salad supplies are in jeopardy. Scientists are trying to make lettuce more drought-tolerant, which is great—and a very good argument for why GMOs can be beneficial to humans in many ways. This is similar to the way that hardier rice and soybeans have been engineered to grow in increasingly unpredictable climates, but it’s not as easy for lettuce... because it’s so watery.


So until the new variety of dry-iceberg arrives, should you stop eating lettuce? It’s so easy to grow your own at home, so maybe just do that if you can and spare the planet the impact of transporting the frigid leaves to your plate. As a matter of practicality, I would also say that arugula and spinach are just as easy to grow at home, have lots more nutritional value going for them, and they’re better simply because they’re so much more versatile—you can eat them hot or cold. I know you can grill lettuce but ew, please don’t.

If you just can’t bear giving up your wedge of butterhead, I guess you have to take a long, hard look at your life. But seriously, who actually really loves lettuce? Would you even care if I swapped the romaine in your Caesar with napa cabbage and kale? I think it might be better, and I bet you wouldn’t even know.

[Washington Post, Take Part]

Photo by MaraZe