How our favourite foods stack up on the water use scale
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South Africa has always been a generally arid country, and it is only going to get drier due to the warming effects of climate change. Not too long ago, Cape Town was counting down to “Day Zero”, the day the City of Cape Town’s taps would run dry. Scary stuff.
Yes, there are several practical things we can do to save water at home and at the office.
Planting indigenous trees and plants instead of a lawn, saving rainwater, placing a bottle of sand in your toilet tank and taking shorter showers are all great ways to save water but these savings are chump change compared to the amount of water that goes into getting us our favourite food and drinks.
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As South Africans, we love our braaivleis, beer and wines but do we know how much water these take to produce?
Let’s see which of our daily staples consume the most water and which are the more environmentally friendly in terms of water usage. All below info was taken from the Water Footprint Network’s website and reports on the global average water footprint of different foods. It is important to note that these figures are derived from global averages and that these items may consume slightly more water or less water depending on the location they are produced.
Coffee vs Tea
Thanks to remnants of British colonisation, South Africans generally drink more tea than coffee and that turned out to be a great thing! Tea is the winner at 108 litres of water per litre of brewed tea. Coffee requires almost 10 times as much water, using 1,056 litres of water per litre of brewed coffee. The main reason for this huge difference is that coffee beans are harvested from a tree that needs much more water to produce the fruit from which we get coffee. Tea, on the other hand, is a shrub of which, only the leaves are used for tea.
Wine vs Beer
Beer (made from barley) wins at 296 litres of water per litre of beer. It takes 872 litres of water to produce 1 litre of wine. Grapes are water-intensive fruits, this is the primary reason wine is the loser here. The race is closer if we look at water use per serving as we tend to consume much more beer per sitting than we do wine. According to a study by the World Health Organization, “in terms of alcohol consumed, South Africa is a beer-drinking nation with beer-making up 56% of all alcohol consumed. This is followed by wine and spirits with an equal 18% share.”
Beef vs Chicken vs Mutton
Winner, winner chicken dinner! At 4325 litres per kg, chicken wins by a long shot. Beef requires the most water at 15 500 litres of water per kilo of meat, followed by mutton at 10 412 litres per kg. If you’re going to eat meat, go with chicken.
Rice vs Mielies
Our winner here is mielies at 1222 litres of water used per kg with rice not too far behind at 2497 litres per kg of processed rice. Maize has long been a South African staple, consumed daily by the majority of our population. Rice would also have a higher carbon footprint as it is imported to South Africa. We are fortunate to have the ideal climate to grow maize in large quantities.
Oats vs Potatoes
Unprocessed potatoes come out on top using 287 litres of water per kilo of raw potatoes. Lagging far behind is oats with water consumption of 2436 litres per kilo of rolled or flaked oats. According to the National Department of Agriculture, South Africa's average potato consumption is approximately 1 340 695 tons per annum.
Peach vs. Orange
Oranges are our winners here using only 560 litres per kg produced with peaches not far behind at 910 litres per kg. Mangoes drink up to 1800 litres per kg of fruit. The USDA Foreign Agricultural Service states that “fresh oranges are the most popular citrus consumed in South Africa with a per capita consumption of about 1.5 kg per annum.”
Broccoli vs Cabbage
Cabbage wins by a slight margin using 237 litres of water per kg. Broccolli follows close behind at 285.5 litres of water per kg, along with cauliflower and Brussel sprouts. In 2017, South African average cabbage consumption was approximately 141 958 tons per annum.
Tomato vs Brinjal
Tasty Tomato wins at 214 litres/kg with brilliant brinjals requiring 361 litres per kilogram. According to the Department of Agriculture, “tomatoes are the second most important and popular vegetable crop after potatoes in South Africa. It is not only cultivated commercially but also commonly grown by subsistence, resource-poor farmers and home gardeners. It contributed approximately 18.3% (excluding potatoes) to the gross value of vegetable production in 2015.”
Olive Oil vs Sunflower Oil
Everything beats olive oil, which requires a whopping 14 522 litres of water to produce just a kilogram of oil. That’s more than all oils except castor oil. It takes 6837.5 litres of water to produce a kilo of sunflower oil. If you’re a fan of coconut oil you’re in luck, as it is also relatively low on the scale. One kilo requires 4 519 litres of water.
Although it may seem that vegetables use much more water than we thought, they still consume far less water than animal products, nuts and some grains.
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The importance of this is that we recognise that the food we eat makes up a huge part of our water footprint. For example, you would save a hundred times more water by cutting out meat from your diet than by having a shorter shower.
Eating fewer animal products and more plant products will reduce your water footprint, as will eating less processed foods. For example, potato chips have more than three times the water footprint of potatoes, and tomato sauce uses twice as much as tomatoes. The same is also true of grains and dairy products, milk is far less water intense than cheese and butter.
The Water Footprint Network also suggests choosing high water intensity products that are grown or produced in areas that do not have water scarcity problems, if making changes to your diet proves difficult.