Wasted food wastes water too


The first 'big-picture' look into the environmental impact of food waste.


The 60 per cent of food in Britain that could have been eaten, but was instead thrown away, has a high impact on valuable water resources around the world.


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New research validates the huge environmental impact of food waste – with twice as much water wasted as uneaten food than water used in the average household in the UK.

To date, there has been little data for any country on the water associated with food waste. The study, conducted by the Waste and Resources Action Council (WRAP) together with the World Wildlife Fund, looks into the 'embedded water' in food waste in the UK and found the 60 per cent of food that could have been eaten, but was instead thrown away, has a high impact on valuable water resources around the world.

Agricultural products are responsible for 70 billion cubic metres of the yearly water usage in the UK, with 62 per cent of the water used from overseas sources. Of the avoidable food waste in the UK, 71 per cent is from imported products. The water used to produce wasted food represents 6.2 billion cubic metres per year; per capita, that’s more than the annual water usage for an average British household.

“These figures are quite staggering. The water footprint for wasted food – 280 litres per person, per day - is nearly twice the average daily household water use of the UK, 150 litres per person per day,” said Liz Goodwin, chief executive at WRAP.

Increasing amounts of food in the UK comes from countries where water management is a sensitive issue. Britain relies heavily on agriculture from Ghana, Brazil and India, including products with a high water footprint such as bananas, cocoa beans, beef, poultry, palm oil, soybeans, coffee and rice. Deforestation combined with global climatic change is expected to dramatically increase pressure on water supplies in these countries.

“Growing concern over the availability of water in the UK and abroad, and security of supply of food, means that it is vital we understand the connections between food waste, water and climate change,” said Goodwin.

The report raises the important issue of the regional interpretation of water footprint data. It is not so much the amount of water that is used which is important – the impact depends on the amount of environmental and water stresses in the local context.

Findings of the report are relevant to Australia, where the water-stressed Murray-Darling Basin produces 40 per cent of the nation’s crops and livestock. Furthermore, 60 per cent of food produced in the Basin is exported to other countries, many with more freshwater resources available than Australia.

In addition, the WRAP study looks into the carbon footprint of food and drink waste in the UK and globally, finding that food waste contributes three per cent to the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of seven million cars a year.

Goodwin says that “the greenhouse gas emissions associated with food waste are greater than those already saved by the total amount of household recycling that takes place in the UK”.

By following the life-cycle of food as this study has done, it is obvious that with a predicted global population of seven billion by 2020, there’s a strong and definite need to improve the way that food is grown, stored, distributed, prepared an consumed with minimal waste.

“We already know that by reducing food waste, householders can save money. Now it’s absolutely clear that they can make a big contribution to addressing environmental concerns too.”