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Wasting Food, Wasting Water

June 10, 2013
Pivot Agriculture in Libya (image courtesy FutureAtalas.com on Flickr)

Pivot Agriculture in Libya (image courtesy FutureAtalas.com on Flickr)

I’ve written previously about the problem of food waste and freeganism as a political movement to address that waste. Now, Pope Francis has entered the fray, denouncing the “culture of waste” of modern economies and likening wasting food to “stealing from the table of those who are poor and hungry.” And blogging at NPR’s The Salt, Eliza Barclay notes that food waste is directly connected to global climate change.

Now, the World Resources Institute has issued a study  making the connection between wasting food and wasting water. While the connection seems obvious, the scale of the waste is mindboggling. According to WRI, inside the estimated 1.3 billion tons of food wasted every year is some 45 trillion gallons of water—representing over one-sixth of all water used globally in a year. That is, almost eighteen percent of all water used globally in a year is used to produce food that is never consumed.

And what’s more, global agricultural trade represents a sort of virtual trade in water. Producing any good generally requires water. This water used in production is dubbed “virtual water,” or water embodied in a product. When a country imports water-intensive goods from another country, it can be thought to be importing that “virtual water” as well.

Agricultural production is particularly water intensive. Indeed, according to the World Water Assessment Program, some 70 percent of all water used around the world is used in agricultural production. Producing a single kilogram of grain, for example, requires 1,000-2,000 kg of water. Livestock production is even more water-intensive, requiring about 16,000 kg of water to produce a single kilogram of beef. So, as Barclay notes, when you’re wasting food, you’re wasting water.

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