Online Tools Reveal the Water Footprint of Food

Online Tools Reveal the Water Footprint of Food

Online Tools Show How Water and Food Are Bound Together

Online Tools Help Teach About the Connections Between Water and Food

Online tools help educators teach complex topics. To illuminate the complex and vital connection between water and food, the Water Footprint Calculator project created the Water Footprint of Food Guide and the Water Footprint of Food Quiz. These online tools are free to use.

The Water Footprint of Food Guide offers a database of more than 100 typical foods and beverages, their water footprints and some context about their production. The Water Footprint of Food Quiz is a brief set of questions that tests what people know about the connection between water and food production, while emphasizing water footprint concepts. The two tools work well together as a way to engage students and develop their understanding of food and water interactions.

The food people eat comprises the largest slice of an average person’s water footprint. Most people don’t realize just how much water it takes to produce the food they eat multiple times a day.

While most people drink less than a gallon of water every day, the amount of water they consume through their food and beverage intake amounts to hundreds or even thousands of gallons of water a day. That’s because of the large volumes of water used to grow and process food on its journey from field to fork. This “virtual water”—or all the “hidden” water required to produce a good or service at every step of a value chain—makes up the vast majority of a food item’s water footprint.

Water and Food Education Are Increasingly Necessary

As the recently released IPCC Sixth Assessment Report starkly reinforces, climate change is projected to intensify Earth’s water cycle (B3.), making precipitation—or its lack—more extreme and variable. Sure enough, major water problems are intensifying worldwide, as evidenced by recent crises, including severe, ongoing drought and water scarcity in the American West, Brazil and Madagascar, on the one hand, and prodigious rain and inland flooding in Germany, China and the American Midwest and Northeast, on the other.

When drought and water scarcity occur in areas where farming and food production predominate, the disruption threatens the stability of regional water resources and the food systems that depend on that liquid lifeblood. Agricultural hubs are often located in places with semi-arid climates or places that face regular water stress. These farmers, ranchers and food producers have to meet the challenge of providing more food for more people. But without adequate supplies of freshwater, food production falters.

That’s because food depends on freshwater supplies, whether through rainfall or through withdrawals from surface water and groundwater sources. Globally, about 70 percent of water withdrawals go toward agriculture. In the United States, as of 2015, irrigation accounted for 42 percent of the nation’s freshwater withdrawals and the majority went to agriculture. Agriculture in the US also accounts for approximately 80 to 90 percent of the nation’s consumptive water use

Additionally, in the United States and globally, agriculture is the largest source of water pollution, from fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals applied to crops, soil degradation in fields and orchards, excessive manure that causes nutrient pollution in surface and groundwater sources and other disturbances from animal agriculture and production.

Water Tools For Food Knowledge

These new tools reveal just how much water it takes to produce the food people eat every day, and they help explain how essential water is to agriculture and food production, even if that water is “hidden” to the shopper and “eaten” through virtual water. 

The Water Footprint of Food Quiz is a simple, fun way to introduce students to the idea that water and food are connected. It contains seven questions that test a quiz-taker’s knowledge about the inseparable bond between water and food, and it gives users information and resources to learn more about water, agriculture and food production. 

To help students dig deeper, the Water Footprint of Food Guide contains more than 100 foods and beverages, like pistachios, cheese and sugar-sweetened soda, and helps students draw the connection between them and the water it takes to produce them by sharing their estimated global water footprint in both gallons and liters for a four-ounce portion. It provides information about the top producing countries and US states and provides some context about how the food was produced. The Guide also offers a breakdown of the blue, green and grey water footprint components.

Both of these engaging tools help educators teach beyond the water cycle. They are a valuable resource for the media and the general public because they provide a greater understanding of how water has become a critical aspect of people’s lives, and will become even more critical as we grapple with climate change.

When overlooked concepts like water footprints and virtual water are put on display, it opens people’s eyes to the complexities of daily life. These new informative and engaging tools help demonstrate how water and food systems are intertwined to deliver something as seemingly simple as the next meal on a plate.

By Kai Olson-Sawyer