From farm to fork: how much water is needed to produce the food we eat?

Water is a precious asset that has to be protected, starting with the food we choose to eat every day. Here is a short guide to the impact of the various kinds of food to direct us towards a less water-intensive and more sustainable diet.

The water we drink (2 liters a day on average), is only a small portion of the amount we use every day - whether knowingly or not. In addition to direct consumption (for washing, cooking, cleaning or watering our plants, which ranges between 20 and 50 liters a day) there is also an indirect consumption of water, i.e. the "hidden" water needed to produce goods and services we use and the food we bring to our table every day, which in turn needs variable quantities of water to be produced.

The sum of direct and indirect water consumption represents the daily water footprint of each of us. In Italy, this footprint is around 6,300 liters of water per person, per day, 1.65 times higher than the global average1.


Water footprint and food

Although it depends on various variables, 90% of our individual water footprint is determined by the food we eat2. We “eat” a lot more water that we drink. We may not realize it but, every day, we bring food to the table that requires large (in some cases, enormous) quantities of water to be produced.

But which foods have the greatest impact on water resources? How much water is needed on average to produce the food we eat? Here is a brief overview3.

Meat
Meat is the most “water-hungry” food. Its water footprint is associated with the water needed to feed livestock, and is influenced by various factors, ranging from the production system used to the composition and origin of the feed used. On average, globally, 15,139 liters of water are needed to produce one kg of beef. More than is needed to produce the same quantity of lamb (10.412 liters), pork (6,299 liters) and poultry (3,960 liters)

Other products of animal origin
Meat is followed in decreasing order by other products of animal origin, such as cheese (5,253 liters per kg produced), eggs (2,562 liters) and fish (2,314 liters).

Cereals, bread and pasta
The water footprint of cereals and their derivatives, such as bread and pasta, also varies according to the origin and cultivation methods used, ranging from an average of 902 liters needed to produce 1 kg of bread, to 1,509 liters for pasta and up to 1,597 liters for rice.  

Fruit and vegetables for an environmentally-friendly diet
Producing fruit and vegetables in most cases requires significantly less water than animal-based foods: one kilogram of vegetables, on average, requires 336 liters of water, while the same quantity of fruit requires an average of 748 liters. More water is needed to produce pulses (4,165 liters), while potatoes and root vegetables have the smallest water footprint of all (287 liters).


It doesn't take much to reduce your water footprint at the table
Albeit indicative of the global average, these numbers cannot be overlooked. For the well-being of the planet it is important to follow a healthy, balanced and sustainable diet. By balancing food during meals and limiting the frequency of ingredients that are less beneficial to the environment and health, in favor of the more sustainable ones, we can reduce Europe's water footprint by 23%  and all be part of a global change.

This means that we can all make a difference: we just need to make the right choices. Water is a precious resource: let’s save it



1  Hoekstra 2015 in The water we Eat, Antonelli and Greco (eds), Springer.
2  Hoekstra 2015 in The water we Eat, Antonelli and Greco (eds), Springer.
3  Details about Su-Eatable Life: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41597-021-00909-8 
4  Vanham, D.; Mekonnen, M.M.; Hoekstra, A.Y. The water footprint of the EU for different diets. Ecol. Indic. 2013, 32, 1–8.