Blog Post: Friday April 26, 2019
Are you eating your water?
by Lydia Makin
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard that it’s Water Saving Week (whoo) and you want to do your absolute best to save water, turn the tap off and fix those leaky loos! This is all fantastic, of course, keep doing what you’re doing, but…you could be using a huge amount of water through the hidden water in your food. Sneaky!
What’s the problem?
In the UK, we are experiencing a huge increase in population and demand for water at the same time as climate change is causing drier summers. This means that water companies, throughout the UK, are already struggling to provide the supply of water we need without causing a negative impact to the environment we take the water from. Sir James Bevan (CEO of the Environment Agency) recently described the point at which demand out strips supply of water as “the jaws of death”. He said we might only be 2 decades away from this actually happening and causing a serious threat to the way we live.
Needless to say, the UK are by no means the worst affected. Countries all over the world are already experiencing droughts and water outages with increasing frequency, I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures of Cape Town last summer too.
What’s causing it?
In the UK, we use around 140 litres of water a day…water from the tap that is. However. everything we buy, eat and wear will have used water in its production, and none of this is included in that 140 litres calculation. We might actually be eating up to 5,000 litres of invisible water every day, depending on our diet. Sometimes we forget about this water, as it’s not as obvious as seeing the water fill up in your bath and is often imported into the UK within other products.
So let’s look at food. Agriculture is by far the largest consumer of freshwater and accounts for up to 70% of freshwater withdrawals from rivers, lakes and aquifers, with this going up to 90% in some developing countries More specifically, it‘s animal agriculture which accounts for the largest chunk of this usage. We know that the livestock plays a huge role in deforestation, biodiversity loss and climate change, and more recently it has become clear that livestock also significantly contributes to humanity’s water footprint, water pollution and water scarcity.
What are the facts?
The water footprint of beef is 15400 litres of water per kilogram, as a global average. This is much larger than the footprints of meat from sheep (10400 litre/kg), pig (6000 litre/kg), goat (5500 litre/kg) or chicken (4300 litre/kg). And much larger again than fruit and veg, with tomatoes (214 litre/kg), apples (822 litre/kg) and potatoes (287 litre/kg) coming in with much lower footprints.
To put that into perspective, having shorter showers every day for a whole year could save you 11,680 litres (if you went from 8 to 4 minute showers using an efficient 8 litres per minute shower).
Pretty much any product which doesn’t contain meat or dairy has a lower water footprint than those that do. However you calculate it, per kg, calorie or kg of protein, animal products have a larger water footprint than crop products. The average water footprint per calorie for beef is twenty times larger than for cereals and root vegetables.
What can we do?
Studies have shown that even a small change to our diet away from meat can make a significant impact, which is great news! Some research goes as far as to say that “reducing animal products in the human diet offers the potential to save water resources, up to the amount currently required to feed 1.8 billion additional people globally”
Go and have a look at the Meat Free Monday website. Founded by Paul McCartney in 2009, Meat Free Monday is a not-for-profit campaign which aims to raise awareness of the detrimental environmental impact of eating meat. The campaign does what is says on the tin, encourages people to go veggie on Mondays. Making this change one day a week can have huge positive impacts for preserving our water resources and it seems manageable, nothing too drastic.
There are other things you can do too. Take a good hard look at your wardrobe. Clothes have a huge embedded water content too, with up to 9500 litres of water needed to make one pair of jeans, which can cost as little as £10 in some cases. For some more information search for Stacy Dooley’s recent documentary called The Truth About Fashion and look out for our blog about slow fashion coming up later in the week.
Take home message
Try not eating meat in every meal. Think about how much of what you eat comes from animals and remember the embedded water needed to grow the crops to feed the animals. It would be far better for the environment and for people in water and food scarce part of the world, if they ate the crops directly.
So if you want to take the next step in your water saving journey, next time you’re getting a meal deal, try the falafel wrap.
- Sir James Bevan, (2019) Waterwise Conference Speach https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/escaping-the-jaws-of-death-ensuring-enough-water-in-2050
- Cape Town Day Zero Guardian Coverage (2018) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/video/2018/jun/05/day-zero-how-cape-town-stopped-taps-running-dry-video
- Water Footprint Network Website (2019), https://waterfootprint.org/en/water-footprint/national-water-footprint/virtual-water-trade/
- UNESCO World Water Assessment Panel, (2017). http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/water/wwap/facts-and-figures/all-facts-wwdr3/fact2-agricultural-use/
- Oki T and Kanae S (2006) Global hydrological cycles and world water resources Science 313 1068–72
- Hoekstra, A.Y. (2014) Water for animal products: a blind spot in water policy, Environmental Research Letters, 9(9): 091003.
- Water Footprint Website (2019) Product Gallery https://waterfootprint.org/en/resources/interactive-tools/product-gallery/
- Hoekstra, A.Y. (2012) The hidden water resource use behind meat and dairy, Animal Frontiers, 2(2): 3-8.
- Ercin, A.E., Aldaya, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2012) The water footprint of soy milk and soy burger and equivalent animal products, Ecological Indicators, 18: 392−402. https://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Ercin-et-al-2012-WaterFootprintSoy_1.pdf
- M Jalava, M Kummu, M Porkka, S Siebert and O Varis (2014) Diet change—a solution to reduce water use? Environmental Research Letters, Volume 9, Number 7 https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/9/7/074016/meta
- Meat Free Monday Website (2019) https://www.meatfreemondays.com/about/
- The Water Footprint Website (2019) https://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Report18.pdf
- Stacey Dooley Documentary Trailer, The Truth About Fashion https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOe_M3GutdY