Thursday, 5 January 2017

Eat Less Water - Part 2

As initiated in my previous post about Eating Less Meat Water, meat - and beef in particular - has a very high virtual water footprint: 15,500 litres of water is the average amount required to produce one single kg of it (Hoekstra, 2008).
This explains how the water cost of a single burger is so high at around 2,400 litres, as showed in the picture I enclosed at the start of the blog.

But as also noted, animal products demand is rising. Most of the quantity need of water lies in the production of feed for animals to grow in order to satisfy this demand globally.

Hoekstra's report, "The hidden water resource use behind meat and dairy" is invaluable in illustrating this topic very clearly.

The water footprint of an animal includes all the water needed for its consumption of feed, all drinking water and servicing water such as cleaning. 

Hoekstra explains that the main elements which make up the water footprint of animal products are the feed conversion efficiency and the feed composition.

The former is the amount of feed needed to produce a certain amount of animal product: it is more efficient in industrial systems as the animals don't move much and therefore do not require as much feed to convert into meat.
The latter is more water-intense in such industrial systems where the feed is more concentrated and often made of irrigated and fertilised water-intensive crops, as opposed to grass and fodder crops which have a lower water footprint.

In the case of beef, the water footprint can vary as cattle can be located in regions with different levels of water availability.
Blue, green and grey water access also vary in different geographies, causing different environmental and social impacts, supporting the idea that the water footprint is an issue which goes beyond mere quantities and differs according to local water sources.

This in turn is amplified due to globalisation, and our regular food consumption patterns including regularly consuming food that was grown and processed elsewhere, and which affected water footprints far from the eating location.

GMO Corn grown for cattle in New Tecumseth, ON, Canada.
In this region, availability of land for crops and of blue, green and grey water make the area suitable for growing food that could be used directly for human consumption rather than cattle feed. Own photo.

The report continues by comparing the water footprint of animal products to that of crops.

Interestingly, from a nutritional standpoint, one of the main points from Hoekstra's report states: "The water footprint of any animal product is larger than the water footprint of a wisely chosen crop product with equivalent nutritional value." and that "For beef, the water footprint per gram of protein is 6 times larger than that for pulses."

It moves on to compare the water footprint of an omnivore diet including meat and a vegetarian one.
In industrialised countries, moving toward a vegetarian diet, still including dairy and eggs, can reduce the food-related water footprint of people by 36%. (Hoekstra, 2012)

He concludes by highlighting that despite the unsustainable need of resources by the meat and dairy industries, there is no real governmental or policy effort to highlight and address the impact that these sectors have on the planet's resources.

Corporations nowadays have more and more power, so I had a look at if and how some companies are addressing water scarcity issues.

Some of the solutions aim at offsetting the water footprint of companies and meat production, usually by investing in technology that will find solutions to save water usage (Hoekstra, 2012).

Water Neutrality Perception

is using more energy and efforts to merely mitigate the effect of actions that are so high in energy and resource use the best option or simply the most appealing one, from the point of view of a business that has enough funds to do so and wants to prove its care for environmental sustainability while maintaining "businesses as usual"?

It may sound overly pessimistically realistic, perhaps even a surprise - after all, the concept of embedded water doesn't get a fraction of the coverage it deserves.

However, I was excited to find out that while some sources show the global outlook is propelling itself towards a more animal-dense - therefore resource-intense - future, social media research engines such as Brandwatch predict that 2017 will be the year of vegan meat.

Aside from the trend factor, this links back to supply responding to demand for a product which, in substitution for animal products, requires less water and could make a significant change in the use of water for food production.

Keeping in mind high-population countries considered to be developing, such as Brazil and China (FAO; FAO, 2012), are some of the drivers of this increase in demand, in some instances aspiring to live a Western lifestyle, and despite the FAO itself trying to promote pulses as sustainable protein sources to promote healthy diets and combat climate change and malnutrition, perhaps the rise of vegan options in the West is going to translate in high demands of such foods in developing countries too, eventually decreasing the overall demand for meat and therefore lightening the pressure on the use of water resources for its production.

Better labelling could help too! Imagine if packets of food had values noting the water footprint of the contained product, similarly to some products' packaging showing the certified carbon neutral symbol: that would be an additional way to highlight the environmental effect of food and the more sustainable nature of meat-free varieties.

How effective do you feel are such market changes as drivers in demand for products with different levels of water footprints?

Do you feel that change at a legislative level remains the best option?
Would more informative labelling work?

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