Wasted Food Is Also Wasted Water

The world's growing food crisis -- which triggered riots and demonstrations in over 30 developing nations early this year -- is being aggravated primarily by wastage and overconsumption.

"Obesity is a much bigger problem than undernourishment," said Professor Jan Lundqvist of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).

He pointed out that there are 850 million people worldwide who suffer from hunger and starvation daily compared with over 1.2 billion people who are overweight and obese, which can lead to a vast range of health problems like diabetes and heart disease.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Stockholm International Water Conference, Lundqvist told reporters Thursday that "improving water productivity and reducing the quantity of food wasted can enable us to provide a better diet for the poor and enough food for growing populations."

A study titled "Saving Water" released here argues that while the risk of under-nourishment is reduced with an increasing supply of food -- provided access is ensured -- the risk of over-eating and wastage is also likely to increase when food becomes more abundant in some societies.

In the United States, as much as 30 percent of food products, worth some 48.3 billion dollars, is thrown away annually just by households alone.

"That's like leaving the tap running and pouring 40 trillion litres of water into the garbage can -- enough water to meet the household needs of 500 million people," says the report co-authored by SIWI, along with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in Sri Lanka.

The study also says that wasted food is wasted water because of the large quantum of water that goes into the cultivation and processing of food.

Professor John Anthony Allan of King's College, London, the winner of the 2008 Stockholm Water Prize, is the author of a concept called "virtual water" where he argues that people consume water not only when they drink it or take a shower but also when they consume food products.

The virtual water concept measures water embedded in the production and trade of food and consumer products-- from the field and the factory to the dinner table.

A cup of coffee, for example, accounts for about 140 litres of water that is used in growing, producing, packaging and shipping the beans.

One single hamburger accounts for an estimated 2,400 litres of water; one kilogramme of beef consumes 15,000 litres of water; a slice of white bread takes in 40 litres of water; and one kilogramme of cheese absorbs 5,000 litres of water.

"I was very surprised with the high numbers. But it catches everybody's attention," Allan told IPS. The figures, he said, were worked out scientifically by researchers in the Netherlands.

Asked whether there was a direct link between water and food scarcities, he said while there is a shortage of food in some parts of the world, there is also a need for twice as much food in other parts of the world.

"So, there is a distribution problem. But this also reflects the maldistribution of water," he said.

Charlotte de Fraiture, a researcher at IWMI, says that as much as half of the water used to grow food globally may be lost or wasted.

"Curbing these losses and improving water productivity provides win-win opportunities for farmers, business, ecosystems, and the global hungry," she said.

And an effective water-saving strategy requires that minimising food wastage is firmly placed on the political agenda, she added.

SIWI says a 50 percent reduction of losses and wastage in the production and consumption chain is a necessary and achievable goal.

Meanwhile, a report released by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says that while each person in Britain drinks, hoses, flushes and washes their way through around 150 litres of water a day, they consume about 30 times as much in "virtual water" embedded in food, clothes and other items -- the equivalent of about 58 bathtubs full of water every day.

Titled "UK Water Footprint: The impact of the UK's food and fibre consumption on global water resources", the study released here points out that Britain is the world's sixth largest importer of water.

"Only 38 percent of UK's total water use comes from its own rivers, lakes and groundwater reserves," Stuart Orr, WWF-UK's water footprint expert said.

The rest, he said, is taken from water bodies in many countries across the world to irrigate and process food and fibre crops that people in Britain subsequently consume.

He said that WWF is encouraging some of the largest companies in Britain to evaluate their water footprints, which assesses the amount of water a business uses both directly and indirectly through its supply chain.

According to WWF, a single tomato from Morocco takes 13 litres of water to grow, while a shirt made from cotton grown in Pakistan or Uzbekistan soaks up 2,700 litres of water.

Orr said most consumers aren't even aware that it takes massive amounts of water to grow the food and fibres consumed -- on top of what is used for drinking, washing and watering the lawn.

"Therefore, it is essential that business and government identify the areas that could potentially suffer water crises and develop solutions so the environment is not over-exploited to the point that people and wildlife lose out," Orr added.

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