We need water – lots of it – to grow food. We use 140 litres of water to make a cup of coffee, and 8,000 litres to produce 500g of beef.
Our use of water to produce food becomes a critical issue when water is taken out of an ecosystem faster than the system can be replenished by natural processes. This over-exploitation can lead to a range of environmental problems, including decreased river flows, shrinking lakes and polluted groundwater.
The Food Ethics Council has produced a report for Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, assessing how policy and industry initiatives can help to reduce the water footprint of the food we grow and eat. We looked at the value of labels in promoting sustainable water use and their effectiveness in communicating water footprints to consumers.
We found that there are many factors to consider when assessing whether water has been used sustainably during a production process. They include the amount of water used, where it comes from, how its use affects the local ecosystem, what other uses water in that location is needed for, and how decisions are made about the water used.
We recommended to Sustain that a water stewardship labelling system would best address the complex criteria involved in judging water sustainability.