header-banner-waterfootprint-what.jpg

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?

Related articles

Most viewed

Human Stories

How Fairtrade Impacts the West African Cocoa Industry | Ask the Expert

Marieke van Schoonhoven

Cocoa farmers are terribly underpaid in West Africa. The majority of farmers in Ghana and Côte…

Earth First

Salmon Hatcheries | Lifeline For Struggling Rivers or an Ecological Burden?

Jude Isabella

With dwindling wild populations, salmon hatcheries were a supposed solution to revitalise struggling…

Human Stories

Cocoa, Coffee, and Cocaine: A Bitter-Sweet Future for Farmers in Colombia

Sunny Chen

Coca, once used in the original Coca-Cola recipe in 1886, has impacted Colombia since the industry…

History & Culture

Problems With Palm Oil | Cost of Production

Madhura Rao

When the food industry started using palm oil on a large scale in the 1990s, it was meant to be a…

Earth First

Is Soy Bad for the Environment?

Molly Melvin

Is soy bad for the environment? Produced on a colossal international scale, soy has a huge…

Human Stories

Tomatoes in Italy: The Social Cost of Production

Silvia Lazzaris

Tomatoes are a staple ingredient in many homes across Europe, but the story of how they reach your…

Inside Our Food

The Ethics of Foie Gras

Claudia Lee

A symbol of "haute cuisine", the story of foie gras began in Ancient Egypt. Produced by gavaging…

Earth First

The Hidden Cost of Eating Shrimp

Maria Pinto

Shrimp dishes have become a staple food in many households and restaurants around the world, leading…

Earth First

Avocado: The Cost of Production

Silvia Lazzaris

During my first year of university, I went to the supermarket to buy an avocado and (it’s with…

Human Stories

Fairtrade Certification | How Does Fairtrade Work?

Jane Alice Liu

In low-income regions, small-scale agriculture is the biggest source of income, job security and…

Cost of Production

Water Footprint of Food

Lottie Bingham

All foods have a water footprint. How big this footprint is, however, differs drastically depending…

History & Culture

Managing Our Oceans: A Small-Scale Approach

Jessica Tengvall

In order to sustainably manage many of our large-scale fisheries, we need data, scientists to…

Keep updated with the latest news about your food with our newsletter

Follow Us