April 30, 2004 -- In a study presented last week by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) at the 12th meeting of the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development in New York, the scarcity of water was found to have a direct relation to the food choices made by people around the world.
The study, titled "Water -- More Nutrition Per Drop", was launched by Sweden's government and produced with SIWI and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).
The report's key finding is that consumer's food choices, rather than anything under the control of food producers, has the biggest impact on water use. The report highlights the need to identify and influence unsustainable food production and consumption patterns that require excessive water usage.
The report notes that today, unlike during the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s, it is consumers – not producers – who are driving global food production. With massive urbanisation and increasing wealth, food preferences are changing with significant increases in the demand for meat and dairy products. The report's findings dramatically underscore that by choosing animal foods over plant foods, consumers are using up the worlds' water reserves at an astonishing rate.
“Between the late 1990s and 2020 world cereal demand will have increased by 40% but the world has a finite supply of water,” says Frank Rijsberman, Director General of IWMI. “Current production patterns are unsustainable. They involve large scale groundwater overexploitation and widespread river depletion which poses a major threat to biodiversity and aquatic ecosystems. We are seeing ever increasing levels of environmental degradation and loss of production potential caused by water pollution from agricultural chemicals, water logging and salinisation.”
According to the research of SIWI and the WMI, it takes 550 liters (145 gallons) of water to produce enough flour for one loaf of bread, while it takes 7 000 liters (1 849 gallons) to produce just 100 grams (3 1/2 ounces) of beef.
That means that it takes 8 449 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, according to the UN report.
Contrast that with the 60 gallons of water required to produce a pound of potatoes, or the 108 or 168 gallons of water needed to produce a pound of wheat or corn, respectively.
And when looked at in terms of calories rather than weight, it's apparent that it takes around 50 times more water to produce a calorie of beef than a calorie of potatoes.
In developing countries, agriculture accounts for as much as 70 percent to 90 percent of the fresh water used, according to SIWI Senior Scientist Malin Falkenmark, and huge volumes of water are further lost in the agricultural process, turning into vapor.
Falkenmark notes that the average meat-based diet "requires 1.2 million liters (320 000 gallons) of water a year — 70 times more than the 18 250 liters (4 745 gallons) a year used for the average household's domestic needs."
By going vegan, you can reduce the amount of water needed to grow your food from an average of 320 000 gallons a year to around 10 000 gallons a year.
The Swedish study illustrates what previous studies have shown repeatedly -- though this is seldom reported in the mainstream American press -- that the water required to grow food to feed one person on the Standard American Diet can feed 32 people eating a (healthier) plant-based diet.
For those concerned about equity, world hunger, and preserving the planet's resources, the choice is obvious -- shift away from consuming products which use a lot of water and other resources to produce (animal products), and move toward those foods which, coincidentally, are those which promote health (fruits, veggies, legumes and greens).
by Jeff Nelson