Frugal swaps to cut your food’s water footprint
LIFESTYLE | September 1, 2018

Frugal swaps to cut your food’s water footprint

We all help to conserve water where we can – taking shorter showers, running eco programmes on our large appliances, saving rainwater to use on the garden – yet did you ever think of the hidden water that goes into the production of our food?

For example, beef, with one of the largest water footprints of any food commonly eaten. Let's work out how much fresh water went into the production of that tray of mince in the fridge...

Our cow needs to drink water, as do all mammals, but add in the thousands of gallons of water required to grow the huge amount of grass, forage and feed the cow eats in a lifetime from calf to a full-grown heifer. Cows have big appetites, put on the pounds slowly on their vegetarian diet so they can munch through a heck of a tonnage in a year or more. Add in processing and cleaning at the end of the cow's life and our little packet of mince comes in at roughly 7,000 litres of water*. Yes, you read that correctly. Seven thousand litres of water for 450g of mince – that's the equivalent of over 130 five-minute showers. Wow.

Picking ourselves up after that bombshell... here are a few simple, frugal swaps we can make to shrink our daily diet's water footprint and help conserve the planet's over-subscribed fresh water resources. A positive balance in our bank accounts at the end of the month wouldn't go amiss, either!

Switch to tea from coffee

Ahh, a lovely cup of tea. Britain's favourite, right? Wrong! Coffee sales first overtook tea sales in the UK back in the 1970s, and since then the fierce caffeine high of the bean has only tightened its grip on hearts and minds (and High Streets!).

But is there an argument for a return to the ritual of tea drinking? As well as offering us a more placid buzz - less jittery, less addictive – tea also has a considerably lower water footprint than coffee. Nine times lower, in fact. Producing a single 750ml pot of coffee takes 840 litres of water; the same amount of tea just 90 litres*.

Why? Firstly, coffee beans require more water than tea leaves to grow. Secondly, what we refer to as a 'bean' is actually the seed of coffee cherry. These cherries are generally pulped before being soaked and passed through a series of water channels to remove the last of the soft fruit layer from the bean that we would recognise – a highly water intensive process.

Switch to infused tap water from soft drinks

Did you know that when we drink a small 500ml bottle of cola, we're essentially drinking around two or three bathtubs of hidden water? Depending on the source of the ingredients, you're downing between 150 and 300 litres of water, indirectly*.

If you were looking for an incentive to ditch the fizzy pop in the interests of your health and waistline, just think of the water cost, the wasteful packaging and the damage to your pocket. Plain old tap water doesn't necessarily inspire, we realise, yet zhush it up with some fresh herbs or fruit and you'll forget all about those silly old packaged drinks.

Switch meat for alternative proteins (or go half-and-half!)

Have you had time to absorb that hidden water stat for the tray of mince yet? Need more staggering numbers? With an Olympic swimming pool's worth of fresh water, some 2,500,000 litres, we could only raise a single cow*.

Pork, lamb and poultry are less hidden water hungry than big bad beef, but still rank on the high end of the scale. If we again take enough fresh water to fill an Olympic pool, we could raise six pigs, or 17 sheep, or around 416 chickens for their meat. In contrast, we could produce in the region of seven metric tons of vegetables from our Olympic water*.

Each and every time we cut down on the amount of meat we eat, whether by choosing differently or replacing half the meat in a recipe with an alternative protein, you're saving thousands of litres of precious fresh water. And, since all the logistics that go into meat production naturally end up on the price, we'll also enjoy a smaller grocery bill at the end of the month.

Think instead of:

>> Sustainable fish, such as anchovies, mackerel and haddock

>> Pulses, such as lentils, chickpeas, split peas and beans

>> Grains, such as quinoa – the only complete protein in the plant world

We know that not everyone's ready to say goodbye to red meat for good, so why not look into buying as sustainably and ethically as possible? Greenredeem members, use your points to bag this new reward from Crowdbutching – the service delivering less water intensive, grass pasture raised beef to your door.

Have you cut down on the meat eating? Would you ever consider switching your morning coffee for a cup of tea? Share your thoughts and comments with Greenredeem via Twitter and Facebook.

>> Do you know the water footprint of your food?

>> How to make your tap water tastier (and avoid plastic!)

*Calculated using's downloadable data resources.