When we think about our water footprint, we think about the amount of water we use to drink, wash, cook, do laundry, etc. But the food we eat accounts for a much higher water use than what we drink or use daily in our homes. An average person drinks 2-4 litres of water every day, but a shocking 2,000 to 5,000 litres of water are needed to produce the food we eat every day, according to the Water Resources Institute (WRI).
Worldwide, agriculture represents about 70% of freshwater use. The WRI has proposed five ways to reduce the impact that food production has on water resources, things to be done by individuals, companies and farmers.
- Reduce food waste. Food is often wasted, either in fields, in the distribution chain and grocery stores before it is sold, or at our homes. The WRI estimates than 1 billion tonnes of food are lost or wasted every year, and 25% of all water used for agriculture which was used to grow it. Many things can be done to address food waste. For consumers, the most important thing is to plan their meals, and shop accordingly. Retailers can also do their part, for example, simplifying expiration date labels and offering food storage tips.
- Change diets. As consumers, we can reduce our water footprint by eating less water-intensive foods. In general, producing plant-derived foods such as vegetables and grains needs less water than animal products such as meat and dairy. A diet rich in plant products also has health benefits. In this regard, it seems that the language companies and restaurants use to describe plant-rich foods has an impact on consumers’ choices, who prefer foods marketed for their look and flavour instead of their health benefits. Nevertheless, some crops require important amounts of irrigation water, leading to problems in regions with water scarcity (see point 4).
- Nature-based solutions. Nature-based solutions are a good way to protect natural resources such as land and soil that are needed for food production. For example, agroforestry, which entails planting trees in farmland, increases soil health, lowers soil temperatures and helps make an efficient use of water. In Malawi, this nature-based solution has increased maize yields by 50 per cent.
- Grow the right crops. Crop yields are affected by water management and drought. For example, sophisticated irrigation systems can control the water level in rice fields to increase yields and reduce water demand. Still, some crops are more suited to dry areas than others. Farmers in drought-prone areas should choose the crops they grow taking into account the water they require, and governments can support research and provide incentives for proper water management.
- Best practices and technologies. New technologies help protect water resources and grow healthy crops regardless of the region. For example, drip irrigation is the most water efficient method in areas with water scarcity. It minimises losses to evaporation and run-off, while less water is available for weeds. Worldwide however, rainfed agriculture is practised on 83% of cultivated land according to the FAO; in this case, farms can invest in methods for rainwater collection and storage for later use.