History & Culture

6 Tips to Reduce the Water Footprint of Your Food

Just a few small changes in choice can go a long way to reducing the water-footprint of your food. Here are 6 tips to eat for a healthier planet.

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 already 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. In fact, 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 the production of food. 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, as a result of 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 in the production of any individual food item.

This is a hard pill to swallow on two levels; 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 also – as I have disappointingly learned – the numerous and constantly in-flux variables which determine the water-footprint of any food, 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 each and every individual item, or how that usage impacts the environment, by considering the various processes typically involved in the production of that type of food, we can (broadly) determine whether that food is likely to be at the better or worse end of the water-usage scale (with the good news being, what is typically 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.

2. Eat better meat

If you are going to eat meat, try take into account how that animal was raised. Although pasture raised and ‘conventional’ meats utilise relatively comparable amounts of water in terms of volume, the impact that water usage has 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 is typically being concentrated into manure lagoons which can leak and pollute nearby waters.4,6

3. Opt for organic

Whilst fertilisers increase crop yields, organic soils typically maintain a structure which enables greater water infiltration and retention, and therefore require less irrigation. Thus, despite taking longer to grow the same quantity of produce, overall the total volume of water consumed is often equivalent, or even less.9 Furthermore, without the added pesticides and fertilisers, the run-off from organic farms is much less harmful to the surrounding natural environment.

4. Eat more whole foods

Whilst 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 environment than the predominantly ‘green’ water used to grow the food in the first place.

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 developed countries actually happens in the home.13 Next time you go to 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 stop water 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 needs to come from above. We have developed means of using water more efficiently, but these practices are of no use if they are 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 the impact we have 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. Ashamedly, I hadn’t ever stopped to think about what impact pesticides and fertilisers might have on the local freshwaters, and as such, 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.

Will you be adopting any of these changes? Or perhaps you have some other tips to help us all reduce the water-footprint of our food? Let us know in the comments below!

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  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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