Water Footprint of Food

All foods have a water footprint. How big this footprint is, however, differs drastically depending on the number and variety of processes involved in getting that food from farm to plate.

Why Talk about Water

Often neglected in climate headlines, water is perhaps the single most integral component to the health of our planet. Whilst for most of us in the Global North, water is not a daily concern, the devastating impact that water shortage has on public health, ecosystems and general welfare make it perhaps the single biggest barrier standing between our planet and its potential capacity to sustain the lives of some 10 billion people predicted to inhabit earth by 2050.1,2

What is a water footprint?

The concept of a water-footprint was first introduced in 2002 as an analogue to the ecological and carbon footprint of an individual or a commodity. In just the same way that our various daily activities – whether that be taking forms of transport, buying an item of clothing or consuming a piece of food – utilise a certain amount of carbon, our daily activities also, both directly and indirectly, draw upon the world’s water resources. The total amount of water consumed, evaporated and polluted through these daily processes is what makes up our individual water footprint.3

The Relationship Between Food and Water

The relationship between food and water is complex. Without sufficient water, crops cannot grow. Ironically, however, agriculture is the largest consumer of Earth’s available freshwater, utilising nearly 70% of all withdrawals globally.3,4

Water use comes in at every stage of the food production chain, all the way from crop growth through to harvesting, processing, packaging and transport. In the same way as we would calculate our own personal water footprint, it is the sum volume of fresh water utilised in getting the food from farm to plate which equates to the total water footprint of that individual piece of food.5

On average, each one of us ‘eats’ 3496 litres of water every day; that is 3496 litres of an increasingly scarce resource are used in the production and manufacturing of our daily foods.6 To put that in context, our individual domestic consumption – cleaning, using the toilet, cooking and drinking etc. - is around 137 litres a day, whilst a further 167 litres is used in the industrial production of items such as clothes, cotton and paper. 6,7,8

Read how water footprint is calculated.

Not All Foods Are Created Equal: Different Foods have Different Footprints

All foods have a water footprint. How big this footprint is, however, differs drastically depending on the number and variety of processes involved in getting that food from farm to plate. Crops, for example, like all living things, require water to survive. Whilst rainfall provides a large proportion of this, rainwater alone is typically insufficient. Farmers therefore rely on other means such as irrigation or abstraction, where water is removed from rivers, lakes or groundwaters to supplement natural water supplies.4

Click here to find out the water footprint of common foods.

What foods have the biggest water footprint?

When it comes to animal products, however, there are a whole host of additional water-heavy processes to take into consideration. Just like plants, animals need to drink water to live and grow, but on top of that they require feeding, cooling and washing, as well as the maintenance of yards, parlours and abattoirs, all of which adds to the final footprint. As a result, almost all animal-based products have a higher water footprint than their plant-based counterparts.4

Read “6 Tips to Reduce Your Water Footprint of Food”.

Do you tend to take into account the water consumption of your foods before deciding whether to buy?

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