While the world increasingly adopts a Western-style diet, if we want to reduce our environmental impact, we should be moving in the other direction. Meat-lover diets are much more water and land intensive than low-meat or vegetarian diets.

Yesterday, we introduced the basic principles of The Crikey Water Diet.

Below is a chart from Waterwise’s Hidden Waters report detailing the amount of water it takes to produce a few of your favourite foodstuffs (and other products — don’t even start on cotton buds…).

Assuming you had only one pint of beer and a burger on bread with egg and cheese, writes Joanne Zygmunt, head of Waterwise research, “you just ate enough water to fill a do-it-yourself fish pond in your garden – about 2,825 litres!”


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Beyond this chart, which is based on global averages, getting to the nitty gritty of which foods to eat is harder. Dizzyingly so.

How do I work out the best foods to eat?

There are so many variables at play that foods really require an ecolabel to tell you how much water is embedded in a product, and what percentage of this water is from rainfall (green water) or irrigation (blue water).

This information then needs to be balanced against that other environmental biggie: carbon footprint. There’s no point making savings at a water level only to waste lots of energy shipping a product half way across the globe.

Here are some main things to consider:

Amount of water used generally.

Amount of irrigation (blue) water used.

Climate in which a product was grown — cooler climates have less evaporation.

How processed the product is.

Methane output of livestock.

Distance travelled to get the food to your mouth.

Does embedded water really matter — after all, doesn’t used water simply re-enter the water cycle?

All rainwater eventually returns back to the atmosphere. What we do with it as it makes its way back to the atmosphere is our choice. Whether we allow it to sustain ecosystems and biodiversity, drink it, grow cotton, beef or wine, or use it for mining or industry. We choose.

Embedded water provides a water “currency” to compare different costs of foods and diets. We need to use a water currency because the full costs of water are not yet built into the water we buy, either as householders or farmers, so dollars are no good. As we reach the bottom of the water bucket, we need to increasingly consider the water “currency” costs of the choices we make, says Kelvin Montagu of the Cooperative Research Centre for Irrigation Futures

I’ve binged on beef. What now?

Why not atone with a tofu potato salad. Or you could try a soy-based meat substitute.

But I really love beef…

If you really want to cook a charming Beef Wellington for dinner guests, look for meat that’s been sourced from free-range cattle rather than those dependent on feedlots. Grazing across large tracts of land is more environmentally friendly because cattle munch on vegetation that’s been fed by rainfall. If you’re relying on irrigation-fed grain, energy-wise “it’s shocking”, says Montagu. 

Is any meat low on embedded water content?

There’s been little research into free-range kangaroo meat, but roos’ reliance on rainfed vegetation, ability to deal with drought, lower body fat (less energy wastage) and relatively low methane output would suggest that it’s prime environmental meat.

Is chocolate verboten?

There’s not much information lying about regarding the cacao bean’s water needs. So for now you can eat chocolate in blissful ignorance.

What about gourmet cheeses?

The Australian dairy industry is highly reliant on irrigation. For cheese, seek out products that come from areas with high average rainfall. Importing generic cheese from New Zealand is not a bad way to go. Bega Valley cheese from NSW is also largely rainfed, notes Montagu. For gourmet cheese, look south to Tasmania and regions like King Island.

And the bread to put it on?

As a staple, wheat’s embedded water content (715-750L per kg)** is not too bad. Bread made from maize (540-630L/kg)** could be better. For wheat, look for crop that’s been grown in a climate with long day lengths and cooler temperatures. Canterbury Plains in New Zealand is a good example, says Montagu.  

Pass the wine please.

At 125 litres of water per glass, one thing we can do to save water is stop drinking wine, says horticultural consultant Stuart Pettigrew. “The good news though is that the best wines from cooler regions (eg McLaren Vale, Coonawarra, Margaret River or Yarra Valley etc) uses less water per glass than cask wine! So from an environmental point of view it is better to drink good wine!” Good news.

Where can I find more information?

Interestingly, little work seems to have been done on the merits of seafood which, you’d imagine, would have relatively low embedded water. On the other hand, it’s already an over-used resource. This highlights a more general issue: water for food is an area crying out for more research and information.