Virtual Water – Real Food

When you think of virtual water, the first thought that comes to most people’s minds is that it some or another digital form of water. It sounds like some or another sci-fi concept brewed straight out of Hollywood. 

The truth is that virtual water is very real and it is one of the reasons why there is such a shortage of fresh water across the world. We all have a water footprint, which we need to keep in check, because just like your carbon footprint, if it gets out of hand, the situation could get even more dire. 

So, let’s have a closer look at what virtual water is and how you can bring it down. 

The reality of virtual water

Virtual water can be described as the water that is used to produce consumer products and food. When we look at the average consumption of water per person, the initial amount doesn’t sound that bad. On the other hand, if you live in an area that is drought-stricken, then the number might shock you. 

Various studies indicate that on an average, a person consumes 137 liters of water a day. When the numbers are broken down, 35% of that water is spent on bathing or showering. A further 30% is used to flush out toilets. 

Laundry takes up about 20% of that quota, whereas cooking and drinking only amounts to 10%. Only 5% of your daily use goes towards cleaning. When you look at the above figures, then 137 liters doesn’t seem so far-fetched, but this only the domestic use which is visible. 

There is another invisible part that is taken up by industrial products, such as paper, cotton and clothes, which amounts to around 167 liters a day. But the most staggering invisible part that people are not aware of is the water that is used in food production. 

Each person is responsible for using around 3496 liters of water a day due to the food that they eat. So, this means that 92% of the water that we use per day is invisible.

What goes into the industrial invisible water count?

When you use your daily consumable products, you don’t really think about the amount of water it takes to produce all those items. This is one area where most people are heavy consumers, especially in the western world. 

In the USA, Japan and Europe, the average person uses around 600 lbs (200-250 kg) of paper a year. In countries like India and other developing African countries, that amount drops to around 5 kg. On average, a US office worker uses 10, 000 sheets of paper per year.

A single sheet of A4 paper weighs around 9 grams. Therefore there are about 107 sheets of paper per kilogram. Multiply that by 200 and you get to around 21,400 sheets of paper per year per person in most of your first world countries.

The thing that makes this number so alarming is not only connected to the trees that are cut down to make the paper, but also in the amount of water that it takes to make a single sheet of A4 paper. The paper industry is the single largest industrial consumer of water in western countries, seeing that it takes around 10 liters of water to make a single sheet. 

Now, if the average western person uses around 21,400 sheets of paper, it also means that they use 214,000 liters of water just on paper alone per year. That does not even take into account any of the other products that we use on a daily basis. 

Why is the virtual food water count so high?

At first glance, it almost seems impossible for a person to consume that amount of water a day. The reason why we think this way is because we don’t take into account the amount of water it took to produce the food. 

If you take a cow, for example, on an industrial scale (which is geared towards using as little resources as possible to produce the most products), it takes roughly three years for the cow to reach an age where it can be slaughtered. That cow would then produce around 200 kg or around 440 lbs. of boneless beef. 

During that three-year period, the cow will consume 1300 kg or about 2800 lbs. of grain foods. The cow will also need some extra fiber in the diet and will consume roughly 7200 kg or 15800 lbs. of roughage. 

To produce the total amount of food that it takes for a single cow to reach a mature are then amounts to a staggering 3,060,000 liters of water. The cow also drinks around 24,000 liters of water and then a further 7,000 liters of water is used for slaughtering and maintaining the farmhouse.     

When you add it all up, it takes around 3,091,000 liters of water to produce a mere 200 kg of boneless meat. That means that it takes 15,400 liters of water to produce 1 kg of meat. This puts the farming industry in the spotlight as farming accounts for over 80% of the world’s total virtual water use. 

Non-meat produce

Animal food production is by far more water-intensive than fruit and vegetables. Therefore vegetarians use much less water. If one looks at cheese, for example, it only uses 3,180 liters of water to produce one kilogram. This is still a relatively high number, but considerably less than beef. 

Rice and soybeans are two of the highest water consumers as they use 2,500 and 2,145 liters, respectively, to produce one kilogram of food. Amazingly enough, apples, which are extremely healthy to boot, only consume around 822 liters per 1 kilogram. Vegetables are by far the least water-intensive as they only use around 322 liters of water per kilogram of produce. 

Although there is such a huge boost to lessen the consumption of sugar, ironically enough, sugar crops take the least amount of water. Coming in at 197 liters of water per kilogram, one could wish that sugar was a healthy part of our daily diets.  

What can we do to reduce our water footprint?

If farming is responsible for most of the world’s water woes, then how are mere mortals supposed to make a dent in the crisis? The simple answer is that every drop in the bucket counts and even if you think that your saving contribution isn’t worth much, it is a start. 

As mentioned, meat-eaters use way more water than vegetarians, so if you want to start making an impact, go one day a week without eating any meat. 

The more people who take a break from meat, the more water can be saved. If you have to have meat and the craving gets you under, opt for grass-fed meat like sheep. Cattle that are raised on corn is one of the biggest problems. 

Although commercial farming is geared at using the least amount of water, you can save even more water if you produce your own vegetables. Drip irrigation, hydroponics and greenhouses, all make it possible to reduce the amount of water that is lost due to transpiration. Your water waste, due to infiltration, will also be less and your garden space is not as big.  

Lastly, we should learn how to use as much of what we buy as possible. In developed countries, consumerism is in the order of the day and people throw away around 30% of the food that they buy. If you can cut that percentage in half, then your water footprint can almost be cut in half. 

Recycling is the way to go

If you have ever wanted a reason to recycle, then this is it. For each ton of paper that is recycled, 17 trees are spared, 1,440 liters of oil is never used. 2.3 cubic meters of landfill space is saved 4,000 kilowatts of energy is saved, and of course, 26,500 liters of water is saved. 

Giving the amount of paper that is thrown away every year, there is a lot of water that can be saved by recycling paper alone. 

Using less electricity

This is also one of the areas of virtual water use that most people don’t take into consideration. To produce electricity commercially takes masses amounts of water each year. 

New estimates show that the US energy sector uses around 58 trillion gallons of fresh water each year to meet the demands of the nation. By switching over to solar energy or another form of a sustainable alternative form of energy like wind, you could reduce your water footprint even further. 

The fact remains that we are over-consuming this precious resource and have not felt the effects of our misuse until now. The world’s population is growing and if we don’t adjust our lifestyles today, our children and grand-children will be left the problem. Sooner or later, everyone will have to take into account how they spend their water and see how they can reduce their use. 

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