Food’s Water Footprint

Mar 27, 2009

By Bernice Hurst, Managing Partner, Fine
Food Network

Countless column inches have been written
recently about present and potential global water shortages. What has not
always been spelled out is that some of the problems are caused by the
water we use to produce our food.

One person looking closely at the ways in
which food production and consumption will impact on the availability of
water in the future is Professor Tim Lang of City University London. Talking
to the Daily Telegraph, Professor Lang said, "The threat to
Britain’s food chain from its water footprint is just as great as its carbon
footprint." He added that people need to be more aware of the way
farmers and food factories all use water to produce staples such as meat,
coffee and milk.

"Huge amounts of water are being used
as irrigation or fed directly to animals. It is a nightmare. Water stress
is huge across huge swathes of the globe. We think that we are liberally
supplied by God’s water. But that’s not true."

Sanjay Guha, president
of Coca Cola Great Britain, also admitted in the Independent on
: "Water is the most important ingredient in all our beverages.
It is essential for the production of sugar and other crops we rely on.
Without it, we simply don’t have a business."

Professor Lang, who is a senior government
food adviser, who was the first to use the term "food miles," is
currently working with a team at City University London on a system that
will help us formulate diets that are nutritious, ethical and sustainable.
This might include, for example, making it easy to see whether "a
Fair Trade banana from Costa Rica is as ‘sustainable’ as a lamb shank from
Wales, or a high-fat ready meal." In order to avoid what Professor
Lang described as the "almost unthinkable" options of rationing
and direct government intervention, he suggested supermarkets and government
encourage voluntary "editing"
of our diets.

Discussion questions: Is the food industry
doing enough
address the growing problem of global water shortages? How should retailers
be responding, especially as consumer
awareness rises around the impact of food production methods?

[Author’s commentary] The Telegraph article
also points out that the World Wide Fund calculates one pint of milk uses
up more than 550 litres (968 pints) of water
(the equivalent of running six full baths) while one cup of coffee needs
140 litres (246 pints).

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7 Comments on "Food’s Water Footprint"

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Warren Thayer
13 years 1 month ago

This is all going to hit the fan, big-time, but it may be a few years yet. I don’t expect much to happen until prices start going up, with water footprint a factor. I sure wouldn’t want to be in the beef business when the trouble becomes obvious. We’re already seeing the increase in cancers that come with a lot of beef consumption, and people are increasingly aware of the amount of water required to raise feed cattle and bring them to market. But as with smoking, global warming, etc., these things have to reach crisis levels before anyone moves. I could be wrong, but I don’t see water footprint becoming a significant issue to “the consumer” for at least five more years.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
M. Jericho Banks PhD
13 years 1 month ago
Here in NorCal, the source of so much of the nation’s produce, we’re experiencing a third year of drought. Light snowpack in the Sierras translates to less runoff to be stored in our reservoirs. Politics further restricts our water conservancy as we seek to protect the domain of the tiny Smelt (like a freshwater sardine), protect ancient waterways, and twiddle our thumbs for decades over the construction of additional dams to create new reservoirs. Farmers are cutting back tillable acreage. We can’t seem to get out of our own way. Additional pressure comes from L.A., which gets its water from us (see the movie, “Chinatown,” for a lurid history of this arrangement). If by “food industry” this topic includes our NorCal agriculture, very little is being done to address local–never mind global–water shortage. We wait on the weather. Farmers always wait on the weather (see the Farmer’s Almanac if you doubt this). There are no real desalination projects underway, despite our proximity to the Pacific. There are no irrigation efficiency initiatives. There is very little… Read more »
Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D.
13 years 1 month ago

This issue is not top of mind with consumers yet. So companies like Coca-Cola, that begin investigating alternatives and solutions now, will be in a better position to respond to criticism when the issue does reach top of mind.

John Roberts
John Roberts
13 years 1 month ago

“Four birds with one stone….”

Reduce budget deficits by taxing water usage at the federal level–it will move through the system similar to a value added tax.
Consumers will shift away from items and product categories with a high cost for total water use to less costly replacements.
Producers will move to cut cost and meet competition by reducing water usage where possible.
Jobs will be created as high tech water meters are produced and installed at all usage points not currently metered.

Impose tariff/duties on imported products by country to equalize any inbalance between US and off shore water tax rates.

Ralph Jacobson
13 years 1 month ago

There are several problems here: 70% of the world’s fresh water is used by agriculture. 40% of all crops are lost before harvesting. 30% of all food in the developed world is wasted. And 50% of all food in the world, including developing regions, is lost. A typical carrot travels 1600 miles before the consumer buys it.

Yes, water is a huge issue, however there are myriad of problems to tackle and some will help others be eliminated if addressed correctly. We were concerned when oil hit $140 a barrel. You can plan NOW for when WATER hits that price. Fasten your seatbelt.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
M. Jericho Banks PhD
13 years 1 month ago

As an addendum to my earlier comments, smart California rice farmers (huge industry here) are using a “dry-seeding” method called Harbinger. This replaces the irrigated version of rice planting that uses prodigious amounts of agua. Hats off to them. Irrigation water costs $1,000 per acre foot here.

Anne Howe
13 years 1 month ago

I think the beverage industry does have the opportunity to get out ahead of potentially negative press and take a leadership stance. That’s the kind of stuff Coca Cola is always on top of and I am glad to see them taking a proactive role as well as providing some transparency to consumers.

Other food producers should do the same, as it is easier to “head-off” the potential negative press when you are leading the effort with positive steps to alleviate the situation. It will take time for the best solutions to develop, but even naysayers will give credit to companies and brands that are committed to moving in the right direction.


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