How to reduce our water footprint by making the right food choices

Most of the water used across the globe goes into farming to produce the food we eat every day. By adopting a sustainable diet, we can all contribute to safeguarding this important resource. Here’s how to do it.

Over the last 50 years, the demand for water has grown significantly due to increasing population new lifestyles. Water stress has also inevitably increased: according to the most recent estimates, 3.2 billion people in the world live in agricultural areas where water is scarce or very scarce, with 1.2 billion of them (around one sixth of the world population) living in areas where there is an extreme lack of water1.

In this respect, farming pays a key role. Globally, farming uses 70% of all fresh water drawn for irrigation2, and causes 92% of humanity’s water footprint3.

Everything that arrives on our table requires water to be produced. However, not all foods have the same water footprint. An example?4 To produce one kg of vegetables we need 336 liters of water, for one kg of dried legumes we need about 4,615, for one kg of pork 6,299 and as much as 15,139 liters to produce one kg of beef.

These numbers should cause everyone to reflect on how precious “blue gold” actually is, especially considering that its preservation concerns us all closely:  the annual amount of fresh water resources available per person has decreased by over 20% in the last two decades5, and the Mediterranean basin, in particular, is indicated as one of the world hotspots where there will be a greater reduction in available water resources.

Tips for reducing your food-related water footprint

Every day, we drink an average of two liters of water, but we actually use a much greater quantity through the food we eat. This is the “hidden water” that is used to produce food and that we could save by changing our habits. The amount of water we “eat” at the table can vary a lot depending on the diet we adopt. Around 1,000 liters of water are needed to produce the food for a sustainable meal, compared with around 3,000 liters needed for a non-sustainable menu that is more “water-hungry”6.

Imagine doing 80 full loads of washing in your machine or having 33 ten-minute showers every day. Either of these would use around 4,000 liters of water: the same amount you could save in a single day by adopting a sustainable diet compared to a non-sustainable one.

Our food choices can make a significant contribution to reducing our water footprint. Here are a few simple but effective ways you can do this without giving up the pleasure of good food:

1. Switch to a diet rich in vegetables, pulses, fruit and whole grain cereals  → animal-based products generally have a greater impact on water resources than plant-based products. On average, the water required to produce 1 kg of beef is four times more than is needed for poultry, over than six times more than for fish, nine times more than for cereals and forty-five times more than for vegetables. By adopting a sustainable diet rich in vegetables, fruit, pulses and whole grain cereals you can save up to 2,000 liters of water per person meal compared to a meat-based diet. 

2. Cut down on food waste → every time we waste food we are also “throwing away” all the water that was used to produce it: by wasting less we can contribute to improving food security and relieve the pressure on natural resources, like water, used to produce the food we eat7.

3. Drink plenty of water, using a reusable bottle → drinking from a reusable bottle saves a lot of water (in addition to reducing the pollution associated with single-use plastic): for every 1.5 liter bottle of water we buy, we are using an additional 1.9 liters of water for bottling operations, industrial processes, packaging and transport8.

4. Be inspired by the Su-Eatable Life sustainable cookbook, which contains lots of recipes for eating healthily and sustainably every day. Try them!

The Planet will thank you.

 1 FAO SOFA 2020.   
 2 FAO SOFA 2020.   
 3 BCFN Europe and Food.  
 4 Details about Su-Eatable Life:
 5 FAO SOFA 2020.
 6 Details about Su-Eatable Life.
 7 Mekonnen, M. M., & Gerbens-Leenes, W. (2020). The water footprint of global food production. Water, 12(10), 2696.  
 8 Niccolucci et al., 2011.