Food water footprint as threatening as carbon footprint: UK food policy advisor

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 30th March 2009

A senior food advisor to the UK Government has indicated that rationing may be a possible consequence of high levels of water use in the industry.

Professor Tim Lang, from City University London, suggested that the threat to the food chain was just as high from its water footprint as its carbon footprint. He added that people needed to become aware of how much water is used in producing staple goods.

Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Lang said his team at City University London was working toward constructing a system to help shoppers find food that is nutritious, ethical and sustainable.

He is also halfway through a project to discover the perfect “sustainable diet”.

Professor Lang, who coined the term “food miles” more than a decade ago, now considers the overuse of water to be the biggest threat facing the food chain. “Huge amounts of water are being used as irrigation or fed directly to animals. It is a nightmare,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “Water stress is huge across huge swathes of the globe.”

According to the World Wildlife Fund, the production of a pint (568ml) of milk uses up more than 550 litres of water – the equivalent of running six full baths, while a hamburger reportedly uses 1,800 litres.

“We cannot carry on consuming the same amount of meat and dairy that we do currently. We are convinced about that now. It is absolutely madness,” Professor Lang claimed.

Rationing remained a very unlikely outcome but supermarkets and the Government will need to “choice edit” the products on sale to reduce consumers’ water footprint, according to the Professor.

Last year, Professor Lang and his team released a report into food security and suggested many in the food industry were keen to tackle sustainability concerns.

“The majority of the key stakeholders we interviewed – from supermarkets to NGOs – want an integrated approach to issues such as carbon footprints, future land use and secure supply chains,” he advised. “The strong message from our study is that the new food security debate must be around sustainability.”

“The old criteria were about price and availability; the new criteria are going to be reframing the food production and business model entirely around sustainability. Issues such as climate change, water, and soil must sit alongside consumer behaviour change.”

Professor Lang suggested that coffee, African-grown vegetables, milk and meat had high water footprints, whereas tea, home-grown apples, porridge and British seafood, such as mussels and oysters, were among the more “sustainable” options.