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What is Virtual Water and Why Should I Be Worried?

What is Virtual Water and Why Should I Be Worried?

How much water did you have with your lunch today? Most of you might say something like a glass, or bottle, which amounts to somewhere between 8 and 12 ounces on average. But that would hardly account for all the water you actually had for lunch. What about the soup or the espresso you had to jolt you through that post food coma that was sure to set in? Well that thimble full of espresso was made with approximately 37 gallons of water, and that bowl of soup, well who knows? The fact is there is “virtual water” hidden in that modest cup of espresso easily makes a 4-ounce cup into a 37-gallon cup. When you consider all the water used in growing, producing, packaging and shipping the beans that went into that espresso you come up with this number. In essence, virtual water is the embedded water that is utilized in the production of a good or service, like your beloved bit of espresso.

We have all been made aware of the environmental impact of our food supply, and have wrestled with concepts around “food miles” and such, but when it comes to water, most consumers just don’t think that much about it. Part of it, at least in the western world, is because water is so damn cheap that we just don’t have to think about it. But the story is much different in other nations struggling with water shortages, and is set to change for everyone, as water shortages become less of a regional occurrence and more of a global reality.

New research shows that we throw away, on average, twice as much water per year in the form of uneaten food as we use for washing and drinking, as reported in the Guardian UK. “What is worse, increasing amounts of our food comes from countries where water is scarce, meaning the food we discard has a huge hidden impact on the depletion of valuable water resources across the world.” John Anthony Allen, PHD, is a British geographer and is widely credited with creating and popularizing the idea of “virtual water” with his aptly titled book, Virtual Water: Tackling the Threat to Our Planet’s Most Precious Resource. “Our ignorance is immense,” says Allen, “Most of us don’t have the slightest idea about the sheer volumes of water involved in our daily lives.”

Now I would understand it if you are, at this moment, throwing up your hands and trying to drown yourself in your low flow toilet. Just as you feel you have done as much as you could possibly do to be a sustainable and conscientious person, stats like this come along and make you feel the problems are so entrenched and systemic that nothing you could do can make even the slightest bit of difference. But it might be as easy as just wasting less food. Food waste (which the numbers are staggering) accounts for somewhere around 5 to 8% of the United States greenhouse gas emissions. If this could be significantly lowered a few percentage points, it could make a sizable difference – the equivalent of taking a few million cars off the road. So don’t bother drinking less, but just (as you do with most things) consume wisely and waste not.

How Much Water is Used to Make Your Food?

Read more: Do Good, Conservation, Eco-friendly tips, Environment, Following Food, Make a Difference, Reduce, Recycle & Reuse, , , , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


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9:32PM PDT on Aug 17, 2012


5:39AM PDT on Jun 20, 2011

Noted with interest.

1:23AM PDT on Jun 6, 2011

The amounts of water "we use" and don't know about are staggering.Thank you.

5:11AM PDT on Jun 3, 2011

It does make you want to throw your hands in the air and say I give up. But wasting less is awesome advice that I'm going to try harder to follow. Thanks!

5:30PM PDT on Jun 1, 2011

Never thought about this before!

3:46AM PDT on May 31, 2011

very interenting.

7:24AM PDT on May 29, 2011

This is very interesting, but it leaves me with a lot of questions. For instance, does the distance from you to the food source effect the amount of virtual water in that food? For instance, if I pick an apple off the tree in backyard (which I do pretty much nothing to), the virtual water content would be different from the apple I get at the fruit stand down the road which utilizes large-scale farming techniques, and even that would be different from the apple I get at the supermarket, which has gone through an even longer process, correct? Have there been any studies done on the differing virtual water contents of food based on the differing practices and processes it took to grow it and get it to where it's going? It seems to me there would be a big difference...

5:36AM PDT on May 29, 2011

Very interesting article! Thanks... didn't realise this. And... having a quick look at that poster... noticeably all the meat/poultry based foods use more water then plant based foods (corn, apples, tea, etc). And cheese! My word... thanks again :)

4:38AM PDT on May 28, 2011

I was really not aware of this... Virtual water... Thanks so much!

12:39PM PDT on May 27, 2011

Very interesting article. thank you.

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people are talking

Just took the fun out of the backyard barbecue for me.

Thanks, great ideas. I would put herbs on the table, for tea or salad!

Important information!!Thank you for sharing.

Cool ideas, thanks.


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