Food and sustainability

From agriculture to energy production, everyone demands water

The visible consumption of water is not the only form of consumption. To live, eat and produce, we consume massive amounts of water, at a rate our planet will not be able to sustain for much longer.

Water is an essential element for human life and every living species. Not surprisingly, water is the common factor linking all 17 objectives for sustainable development  approved by the UN, on 25th September, 2015, and which sets out a roadmap for every country in the world to achieve sustainability by 2030. Even though the planet is literally covered by water, only about 1 percent is freshwater available for use by humankind. The problem of scarce supplies of water, which occur whenever the requirements of different sectors cannot be met due to limitations connected to the quantity or quality of water, involve 40 percent of the world population and could affect around 2 billion people in 10 years.

Growing demand

There are multiple factors which will determine future demands for water. The first, without a doubt, is the increasing population. The water required to feed over 9 billion people estimated to populate the Earth by 2050 translates into an increased consumption of at least 20%, as a result of a rising demand for food, +50 percent by 2030 and +70 percent by 2050 (1).
A second factor is the change in eating habits. Over 90 percent of humanity’s water footprint (2) can be attributed to agriculture, the human activity which requires the most water. This means that what we eat determines the amount of water we each consume. Food, for example, represents 89% of our daily water footprint: up to 5,000 litres are needed to produce the food required by a single person.

On average, the agricultural sector consumes 70 percent of global water reserves. But in some countries this percentage is much higher and is in strong competition with other sectors. The total quantity of water “contained” in food depends on many factors, such as the food system and the geological area of reference. For example, meat produced in intensive systems requires five times more water compared to free range (3). Meat and animal derivatives are the most water-intensive foods: 2,400 litres of water are required to produce a hamburger, compared to 500 litres for a portion of cheese, 150 litres for a portion of pasta and 13 for a tomato (4). Therefore, our eating choices play a strategic role in the management of the planet’s water resources. If the entire world population were to adopt a western style diet, it would require an increase of 75 percent in the water currently used to produce food. In contrast, the adoption of a Mediterranean style diet would make it possible to save over 2,000 litres each day per person.

Energy vortices

By 2035, the increased demand for energy will grow by a third, compared to 2011, in China and India, especially, but also in the Middle East and South-East Asia (7). Hydro-energy production will increase 60 percent by 2030 compared to 2004, therefore creating further pressures on water resources (8). Even biofuel production, which today covers approximately 3 percent of of the earth’s agricultural land, consumes water. In 2030, the water footprint of biofuels will have increased tenfold in comparison to levels in 2005 (9).

Climate change will also lead to changes in precipitation, evapotranspiration (or the amount of water per unit of time, which passes from the soil into the air as vapour, from the effect of transpiration, through plants, and evaporation, directly from the land), the temperature and the number and occurrence of extreme events such as droughts and floods (10). It has been estimated that a rise of just 2°C from current temperature will lead to a 40% increase in the number of people who live in a condition of total scarcity of water.

World Water Day is on 22nd March and it is an opportunity to remind ourselves that water is life and that each one of us has been called to defend this human right (as enshrined in a UN resolution approved on 28th July, 2010).

Marta Antonelli,
BCFN Foundation, Alumni

(1) Bruinsma J. (2009), The Resource Outlook to 2050: By How Much do Land, Water and Crop Yields Need to Increase by 2050? Prepared for the FAO Expert Meeting on “How to Feed the World in 2050”, 24–26 June 2009, Rome.

(2) The water footprint is an indicator for the use of fresh water, defined as the total volume of fresh water used to produce goods and services. Water is measured in terms of volumes used (water evaporated or incorporated in a product) and/or polluted by unit of time. The source of the water used is also determined (which may be water contained in the soil, aquifers or watersheds).

(3) Antonelli M., Greco C., 2013. L’acqua che mangiamo (The Water We Eat). Edizioni Ambiente Srl

(4) Chapaign, A.K. and Hoekstra, A.Y. 2004. Water footprints of nations. Value of Water Research Report Series No. 16 .UNESCO-IHE, Delft, the Netherlands

(5) BCFN, online media content. Quanta acqua mangiamo? (How much water do we eat?)

(6) BCFN, 2014. Double Pyramid 2014.

(7) IEA [International Energy Agency] (2013), Redrawing the energy-climate map. World Energy Outlook Special Report. Available on line at:

(8) WWAP [World Water Assessment Programme] (2009), United Nations World Water Development Report 3: Water in a Changing World, Paris/London, UNESCO Publishing/ Earthscan. Available online at:

(9) Gerbens-Leenes P.W., van Lienden A.R., Hoekstra A.Y., van der Meer T.H. (2012), “Biofuel scenarios in a global perspective: The global blue and green water footprint”, Global Environmental Change, 22, pp. 764-775.

(10) Bates B.C., Kundzewicz Z.W., Wu S., and Palutikof J.P. [eds] (2008), “Climate Change and Water”, Technical Paper of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC Secretariat, Geneva.

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