Food chain at threat from water usage in food production in the UK

April 3, 2009 at 4:21 pm

We all know what a ‘carbon footprint’ is but something we might not know about is our ‘water footprint’. When it comes to the production and consumption of food, it is something a leading government food advisor adamantly believes is just as much of a problem in the long term as carbon.

Professor Tim Lang was the man behind the term ‘food miles’, which is the total mileage our food travels from field to plate. The biggest traveller for us in the UK comes from the very food we are all urged to eat more of everyday: fresh fruit and vegetables. The supermarkets can’t resist buying in bulk from the cheaper suppliers abroad, no matter how loudly people like Prof Lang and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver shout. The growing concern now being highlighted by Prof Lang, though, is the vast over-use of water throughout the whole process of food production.

When a cow is grazing in the fields, for example, the amount of water that is needed to water the pasture, to give to the animal to drink, to use in the pasteurisation process for its milk, to use in the production process of the slaughter etc, eventually equates to roughly 550 litres of water for just 1 pint of milk and a colossal 1800 litres for just 1 beef burger. It’s a shocking set of statistics and Professor Lang is urging people to cut down on the amount of dairy and meat they all eat, just as they might with the amount of flights they board.

There are many ways that farming can help to bring down a country’s carbon footprint. Organic farms, which use no fertilizers at all, mean the chemicals emitted in their production are eradicated. The packaging, transportation and chilled storage of foods can also emit a large amount of carbon into the air, so fresh food is the answer here. Even the methane produced by cattle adds up in the long run. Prof Lang’s voice is apparently being heard by DEFRA, but will this matter be taken as seriously as carbon?

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