March 22 is World Water Day. On this day, we should all recognize that food issues are also water issues. Water isn’t just essential for humans – it’s also essential for the plants and animals that humans eat.
One way to understand how water consumption interacts with food is through the concept of “virtual water,” which was developed by Tony Allan in 1993. Allan is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Geography at King’s College London, where his work “focuses on the social and political contexts which usually determine water policy.” Allan was awarded the Stockholm Water Prize for his development of the concept in 2008.
Virtual water is a measure of the amount of water “embedded” within a product – that is, the amount of water that is needed to make it. Allan’s work illustrates how some types of foods have more virtual water embedded in them than others.
While one hundred years ago there was more than enough water to go around, water scarcity is now becoming an increasingly important issue. As Allan stated in an interview with the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (BCFN), “Now, with a global population pushing seven billion, water scarcity is not just a possibility. It is already a reality for many.”
In changing the way we think about the interactions between food and water, Allan has successfully drawn connections between water scarcity and food and agricultural issues, shifting the focus and expanding the conversation about how best to conserve water. Allan describes farmers as the “‘de facto’ water managers of the world,” identifying their invaluable role in preserving water resources across the globe.
One way for individuals to reduce their consumption of virtual water is to eat less meat. According to BCFN’s 2012 Eating Planet report, “A diet rich in meat [uses] close to 5,400 liters” of virtual water. By contrast, “A diet composed of cereals, fruits, vegetables, and fish uses somewhere between 1,500 and 2,600 liters.” One can further conserve virtual water by being more aware of food misuse, since wasting food also wastes the water used to produce it.
For further information on the concept of virtual water, see Allan’s book Virtual Water: Tackling the Threat to the World’s Most Precious Resource.