16 Mar 2015


And the water footprint of food waste is equivalent to approximately 2,500 billion liters every year worldwide, three times the volume of Lake Geneva
The objectives and targets for a sustainable future proposed by the Milan Protocol 
created by the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (BCFN) Foundation.

Food consumption contributes to 89% of the daily water footprint of Italians: on average, an individual consumes two liters of water a day to drink but, unbeknownst to him, uses up to 4,000 liters to feed himself. This “invisible” consumption pertains to virtual water, that is, the volume of water used during the food production process. On the occasion of World Water Day, being celebrated on March 22, the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation is re-launching the concrete objectives and targets of its Milan Protocol for a sustainable future.

Most of the water “contained” in the foods which arrive on our tables is consumed within the first part of the production process, the remotest from the consumer: the growing stage. The total quantity of water “contained” in food depends on many factors, including the type of agricultural system adopted and the climate and land features specific to the production site, which influence the amount of water the plants require.
In worldwide average terms, the production of 1 kg of beef requires an average of 15,415 liters of water and the meat produced in intensive systems requires five times more water than pasture breeding. 250 grams of tomatoes contain 50 liters of virtual water, a margherita pizza 1259 liters; producing 1 kg of pasta requires on average 1850 liters of water worldwide, 1410 in Italy.

“The consumption of virtual water, therefore, varies in accordance with diet,” says Marta Antonelli, author of the book The water we eat, a PhD graduate from King’s College London and a Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation consultant, “By adopting a Mediterranean-type diet, it is possible to ‘save’ more than 2,000 liters of water a day per person compared to other diet types. If the world population adopted a “Western” type diet, characterized by high levels of meat consumption, we would need to increase the amount of water currently used to produce food by 75%. Certain studies have shown that, in the future, it will be possible to reduce the global water footprint even with the expected major increase in the population, by changing consumption.

Virtual water is also subject to commercial trading on a global scale. In the case of a bottle of sugary beverage, for example, the content of virtual water will represent the water which was needed to produce the sugar cane used to produce the content of that bottle, not just the quantity of water actually contained in the bottle. Italy is the third leading net importer of virtual water worldwide, above all due to the consumption of products of animal origin. The leading net exporters of virtual water are: the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand and Australia. On the other hand, the leading importers include certain countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Mexico, Europe, Japan and South Korea. The products related to the largest flows of virtual water (43%) are involved in the trade of cotton, palm oil, sunflower, soy and rapeseed.
Another crucial area for the consumption of water is waste. Every year, approximately 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted, one third of world production. This also involves the squandering of the water resources required for production. The water footprint of food wastage is equivalent to approximately 250 cubic km every year, equal to the annual flow of the Volga River, the longest river in Europe, or three times the volume of Lake Geneva.
“In Italy, the quantity of water wasted due to unused food is equivalent to approximately 706 million cubic meters,” says Marta Antonelli. “Of this, approximately 43% is due to meat wastage, 34% to cereals and derivatives, 19% to fruit and vegetables and 4% to milk and dairy products. If we also consider the loss of food occurring within the production cycle, never getting to the distribution stage, the figure rises to 1,226 million cubic meters of water: a figure comparable to the annual drinking water requirements of 27 million Nigerians, or equal to one tenth of the minimum requirement of the entire population of Africa not having access to water.

The reduction of food wastage by 50% by the end of 2020 is one of the targets of the Milan Protocol, a project set up in 2013 by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation with the assistance of over 500 international experts, in response to the great paradoxes of modern food habits. As well as doing away with wastage, the Milan Protocol has the following targets: agricultural reform and countering financial speculation on raw materials, concrete efforts to counter hunger and undernourishment, guaranteeing access to food for everyone, and fighting obesity, promoting a culture of food education and prevention from a very young age.

“We can all play a part within the sustainable use of water, if we are aware of the various kinds of wastage," concludes Marta Antonelli. "There is first-level wastage: the part of food produced which will never reach the consumer but will rot or be disposed of, or be thrown out by the consumer before it is used, calculated at about 30% if we consider all the stages from production to consumption. Second-level wastage relates to the choice of foods on the basis of the production methods: the production of a steak from sustainable non-intensive farming consumes one fifth of the water required by intensive farming. This is where the consumer can play the most important role, by being aware of what he chooses to eat. Of course, it is also important to pay attention to the direct consumption of water for domestic use, such as the water we use to wash: this wastage, however, has an impact which is much less significant than the first two levels and is defined, therefore, as third-level wastage.”

A commitment on which the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation has been working on since 2009. The Milan Protocol, which has received the backing of almost 100 public and private institutions and organizations and thousands of private citizens the world over, is one of the reference documents for the preparation of the Milan Charter sought by the Italian Government, the final version of which will be delivered on October 16 to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon.