Virtual water is a real food problem

Bluefootprint_waterfootprintDid you know that the average Canadian consumes 6400 litres of water per day?[1] That means every week, you are consuming enough water to fill a 12x24 foot pool, and every year, you will fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Everything you consume has a certain amount of water embodied in it. The cotton for your shirt, the iPhone in your pocket, all require water. Add those liters together, and you get a water footprint. Most of this footprint is invisible, and over 90% of that is embodied in food. Globally, the agricultural sector accounts for about 70-85%[2] of freshwater use, so the choices you make at the grocery store are the most important when it comes to reducing your water footprint. Sit back and take a sip of that cup of coffee, because it took 560 cups of water to produce.[3] Add some milk, a bit of sugar and a couple of eggs for breakfast, and you get a sense of the immense amount of “virtual water” we consume everyday.

The concept of virtual water is a useful way to think about the rivers that flow to keep our modern lives afloat. Virtual water is the hidden flow of water embodied in the products we consume. Since the typical Canadian eats foods that have travelled around the world, often many times over, we are connected to the diverse watersheds that produce that food. As the summer bounty of local fruits and veggies is replaced by imports from California, our choices have an impact beyond our borders. Choosing veggies imported from California means we are effectively importing water from a drought-stricken region.

The good news is that you can make a real difference with some simple steps. Visit our website for some interactive resources and learn about which foods take the most water to grow, raise, process and bring to the table. Since plant-based diets require, on average, less water, consider reducing your consumption of meat. Celebrate the international year of the pulse by cooking with beans. Purchasing pastured meat uses less water than animals fed a grain-based diet.[4] And finally, try not to waste food. Since 25-30%[5] of all food produced globally never gets eaten, the water associated with food waste turns that Olympic sized pool into something bigger than Lake Erie.[6] By reducing your food waste, you can make sure that we aren’t flushing it all down the drain.

 

 

[1] WWF. (n.d.). Your water footprint. www.wwf.ca/conservation/freshwater/waterfootprint.cfm

[2] Mekonnen, M.M. & Hoekstra, A.Y. (2011). The green, blue and grey water footprint of crops and derived crop products. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 15(5), 1577-1600. http://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Mekonnen-Hoekstra-2011-WaterFootprintCrops.pdf

See also NSF International. (2014). Food, energy, and water: Transformative research opportunities in the mathematical and physical sciences. www.nsf.gov/mps/advisory/mpsac_other_reports/nsf_food_security_report_review_final_rev2.pdf

[3] Chapagain, A.K. & Hoekstra, A.Y. (2007). The water footprint of coffee and tea consumption in the Netherlands. Ecological Economics 64, 109-118.  http://temp.waterfootprint.org/Reports/ChapagainHoekstra2007waterforcoffeetea.pdf

[4] Mekonnen, M.M. & Hoekstra, A.Y. (2012). A global assessment of the water footprint of farm animal products. Ecosystems 15(3), 401–415. http://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Mekonnen-Hoekstra-2012-WaterFootprintFarmAnimalProducts.pdf

[5] Losing our Touch. Ontario Environmental Commissioner Report 2011/12. http://eco.on.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/2011-12-AR.2.pdf

[6] Ibid., p 162