Farming’s huge feet

One hundred and thirty five litres of water go into the production of a single egg. For a kilogram of wheat, it’s 1,300. Over the course of its lifetime, a typical cow consumes more than 3 million litres – that’s 2,400 to each hamburger. The figures (all global averages) are startling. And, according Dutch academic and creator of the “water footprint” concept Arjen Hoekstra, present a compelling case for greater transparency in the food industry.

Speaking at the Compassion in World Farming’s annual Peter Roberts Memorial lecture in London on Monday night, Hoekstra said that a product’s water footprint – in other words the amount of freshwater used over the various stages of the production chain – can be significantly reduced if farmers, governments and consumers take action.

For the agriculture industry, this means adopting precision irrigation (taking water directly to the plant’s roots, rather than spraying it widely which can save up to 50% of water); for governments, allowing water footprinting to influence other policy areas, such as trade and foreign policy; and for the public, demanding better labelling of products, Hoekstra said.

Whether greater consumer awareness leads to better choices, however, is subject to debate. Growing understanding of the links between meat and climate change have, after all, tallied with huge rises in meat consumption – which is expected to double again by 2050.

To work out your own water footprint, visit