Executive Address – June 2013

A Journey into the Water Footprint

Tossing out food is clearly a waste of money — and maybe even be immoral, according to Pope Francis, who likened food waste to “stealing from the table of those who are poor and hungry.” And according to the National Public Radio, you also may be creating extra greenhouse gas emissions by sending food to a landfill. A new report however, brings yet another reason not to waste food: It wastes a heck of a lot of water.

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), an environmental think tank, inside the 1.3 billion tons of food wasted every year worldwide is 45 trillion gallons of water. This represents a staggering 24 percent of all water used for agriculture.

And agriculture already demands the world’s biggest supply of freshwater, accounting for 70 percent of all freshwater use globally – according to the World Water Assessment Program (WWAP). Those freshwater resources are diminishing fast, just as demand for them rises from millions of hungry and thirsty people joining the global population.

However, when it comes to water, not all food products are created equal. As WRI notes in its new working paper on food waste, a pound of wheat flour on average contains 12 percent water and 1,639 calories, whereas a pound of apples, on average, contains 81 percent water and 766 calories. Fruits and vegetables are the largest source of loss and waste on a weight basis — in part, because they contain more water than other foods.

Meat, of course, requires more water in its production than any other food, because animals devour so much feed that in turn has to be grown with water. Meat production requires between 8 and 10 times more water than grain production, according to the WWAP. Fortunately, we’re better about eating the meat we produce. It represents only 4 percent of the total food wasted by weight, and 7 percent of the calories wasted, according to WRI.

If you’d like to know how your favorite foods stack up in terms of how much water they require, the chart from the Water Footprint Network is pretty handy (attached at the end of my address).

As for all the water in wasted food, I wonder where it goes.
In the developing world, farmers struggle with food loss long before it gets to the consumer. But greater access to simple equipment, like silos for airtight food storage and crates for delicate fruits and vegetables, could eventually help a lot, (according to the WRI).

In developed countries –like the USA, by contrast, most food waste happens further along the food distribution chain — in homes and restaurants, for example. We need to do a better job of redistributing food we can’t eat, and serving and ordering smaller portions, according to the report by the WRI.

One thing remains certain, the water footprint being created by the collective need to survive in the United States, let alone the world, cannot be sustained.  This year, in Madera County, we won’t even have the opportunity to place a piggy toe into any footprint, as our water allocations have been cut by more than half from an average year.
Rumors grow of a looming shadow to the east –that a plan formulation report (PFR) is being circulated amid the Bureau of Reclamation for Temperance Flat Dam.  Perhaps now that this water footprint has become stretched so thin, we might have a shot at a real sock to gird it with?

The water footprint of some selected food products from vegetable and animal origin.

litre/kg

litre/kcal

litre/gram protein

litre/gram fat

Sugar crops

197

0.69

0.0

0.0

Vegetables

322

1.34

26

154

Starchy roots

387

0.47

31

226

Fruits

962

2.09

180

348

Cereals

1644

0.51

21

112

Oil crops

2364

0.81

16

11

Pulses

4055

1.19

19

180

Nuts

9063

3.63

139

47

Milk

1020

1.82

31

33

Eggs

3265

2.29

29

33

Chicken meat

4325

3.00

34

43

Butter

5553

0.72

0.0

6.4

Pig meat

5988

2.15

57

23

Sheep/goat meat

8763

4.25

63

54

Bovine meat

15415

10.19

112

153

Source: Mekonnen and Hoekstra (2010)

Anja K. Raudabaugh
Executive Director