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History & Culture

6 Tips to Reduce the Water Footprint of Your Food

Making a few changes to your diet can go a long way to reducing the water footprint of your food. Discover 6 tips to reduce the water footprint of your food.

Water shortage and food

Water shortage and food

Water shortage is one of the greatest crises we face today, with two-thirds of the global population living in conditions where water is scarce for a month or more every year.1 There are two contributing factors to this problem: increasing global demand for water and insufficient and unsustainable means by which these demands are being met. 1,2 Yet, despite global water usage increasing threefold over the last fifty years, a further 60-100% increase in water usage is predicted by 2050. 2,3,4,5

But this is not just a matter of turning the tap off when you brush your teeth, cutting your showers down to 3 minutes, or sharing the washing load with your flatmates. Domestic activities constitute less than 4% of our total daily water consumption, with the remaining 92% falling into two ‘invisible’ categories: the industrial production of household items such as paper and cotton and food production. Astonishingly, 69% of our total daily water consumption comes from the growth and production of food alone. For the average person, this equates to a whopping 3496 litres of water ‘eaten’ per person, per day.6

How to find out the water footprint of your food

Unfortunately, due to the huge number of (constantly in-flux) variables associated with the water footprint of food, there is no single go-to reference book for the exact number of litres used to produce any individual food item.


Editor's note: A meta-analysis of nearly 40,000 farms by Poore and Nemecek found that the impacts of the same food can vary as much as 50 times, depending on how and where it is grown. Rather than calling a specific ingredient "good" or "bad", we must look at ways to make our food system more sustainable - growing suitable crops in the right places, using the most sustainable techniques available.

This is a hard pill to swallow.  Not only do we have yet another factor to consider when weighing up the benefits and costs of each and every food choice (on top of already attempting to take into account animal welfare, CO2 emissions and the impact it might have on our own health, let alone taste, cost and convenience), but it also means we have no definitive rule-book as to what food to choose.

6 Ways to reduce your water footprint

Whilst we cannot know the exact volume used by every individual item or how that usage impacts the environment, we can make broad conclusions to help us reduce the water footprint of our diet. And there's some good news; what is good for the planet, is typically good for you too).

1. Eat less meat

On average, healthy pescatarian or vegetarian diets utilise up to 55% less water than an omnivorous diet.7 If giving up meat is too difficult, simply reducing the portion size or number of meat-based meals you eat can go a long way in reducing your water footprint.

2. Eat better meat

If you are going to eat meat, try to take into account how that animal was raised. Although pasture-raised and ‘conventional’ meats utilise similar amounts of water in terms of volume, the impact of that water usage differs drastically. Pasture relies predominantly on rainfall, whilst industrially farmed animals typically consume irrigated corn, which draws on the earth’s limited surface and groundwater resources.8 On top of that, the waste of factory-farmed livestock is typically concentrated in manure lagoons, which can leak and pollute nearby water bodies.4,6

3. Opt for organic

While fertilisers increase crop yields, organic soils typically maintain a healthy structure that enables greater water infiltration and retention and, therefore, requires less irrigation. Despite taking longer to grow the same quantity of produce, the total volume of water consumed in organic systems is often equivalent, or even less, than non-organic produce.9 Furthermore, without the added pesticides and fertilisers, organic farm runoff is much less harmful to the surrounding watershed.

4. Eat more whole foods

While whole foods like fruits and vegetables require water to grow, heavily processed foods utilise additional water for cleaning machinery and pre-cooking ingredients as well as in the production of fuel for delivery and packaging, etc. Making matters worse, this additional water usage typically comes in the form of what we term ‘blue’ and ‘grey’ water, which is significantly more detrimental to the environment than the predominantly ‘green’ water used to grow the food in the first place.

Find out more about blue, grey, and green water footprints

5. Waste less

Despite there being 821 million people in the world suffering from chronic undernourishment, one-third of all food produced for human consumption goes to waste every year – enough to feed every under-nourished person across the globe, twice over!10,11,12

Despite the blame typically being placed on supermarkets, at least 50% of waste in most richer countries happens in the home.13 Next time you throw a piece of food in the bin, consider the water used to produce it.

6. Eat local

Choosing foods grown close to home not only supports farmers in the community but also reduces the amount of water utilised in transport and stops water from being ‘exported’ from the places on earth where it is needed most.

Is that enough to stop the water crisis?

Unfortunately, as is the case with the entirety of the climate crisis, change must come from above. We have developed means of using water more efficiently in agriculture, but these practices are useless if not implemented. Policies must change, and water-related investments require attention.

Still, that does not negate our moral responsibility to – on an individual level – ensure that our impact on the planet is as minimal – or as positive – as possible.

Despite having been a vegetarian for over half my life and a vegan for nearly two years, it is only through researching this topic that I have taken the time to consider my food choices further. I feel embarrassed that I hadn’t ever stopped to think about what impact pesticides and fertilisers might have on the local freshwaters. As such, I often opted for the non-organic version of my favourite veg, all in the name of saving some money. My priority will now be buying, wherever possible, the local, organic option. (But I know that will come at a price). 


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References
  1. Mekonnen & Hoeskstra (2016). “Four billion people facing severe water scarcity”. Accessed 30 August 2019.
  2. Sobhani, Rezazadeh, Omidvar & Eini-Zinab (2019). “Healthy diet: a step toward a sustainable diet by reducing water footprint”. Accessed 30 August 2019.
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