Sustainable eating options includes fruit and vegetables

Want to save water, and the planet? Eat this.

We only went for a quick sunset dip in the water. Four hours later, we left full of brandy, with a bag of waterblommetjies and a freshly slaughtered bit of lamb. I blame it on the farmer. But then again, this was Elands Bay.

The small town hugs the toe-numbing Atlantic ocean from along a powdery beach littered with black mussel shells and long stripes of seagrass. The coastline is dry, almost desert-like. Perhaps that’s why the people are so warm and welcoming. I cannot imagine that life’s a breeze in this area. Many make a living growing potatoes out of the sandy soil. But like the biting gust outside our conversation inside the bar quickly blew from the starchy veg other dietary delights: Meat, and water. Had we stuck to potatoes, the next morning might have been a little easier.

Food and water are, of course, intimately connected. In comparison to the water that we use every day to wash and drink, the amount that we eat is enormous.

In fact, we are eating our way beyond the barriers of what the planet can sustain. Conversely, what we choose to eat can also help save the planet. It’s true. I even discussed the implications for a lover of lamb and waterblommetjie stew with a farmer in a bar.

It’s worth tackling the details of sustainable eating, and especially eating to save water, if you want to lighten your load on the environment. Actually, the implications are simple. First, if you want to tackle the new year with a diet to save both yourself and the planet, look up from the number on that scale, to where your food comes from.

How plants eat water

By far, the bulk of the water that we use on the planet is to feed us – a global average of roughly 70% (though some figures put this as high as 85%). The bulk of this average goes to crops, and gets there in the form of rain. A smaller amount (about 16%) is pumped from lakes, rivers and aquifers to irrigate fields. In this way, the amount of water that we consume to produce food has more than doubled between 1961 and 2000.

Food production and sustainable eating.
It’s a big planet, and we are big on food production to keep the people on it fed.

Global averages are great for an overview of the big picture, but regional figures are where the implications to you become clear. In South Africa, for example, the agricultural sector uses 57% of the country’s available water. Municipalities here use 35% – so saving water at home still makes a substantial difference. The industrial sector uses the remaining 8%.

Plants use water in two ways. Let’s take the potato, for example. Water moves within the plant leaves and exits it as vapour (transpiration). Then, some water also goes back into the air from the soil, and in the process of irrigation (evaporation).

The water that is removed from the catchment through evaporation and transpiration is called consumptive water. This water reduces the remaining water that flows in the environment, like in rivers. Non-consumptive water is the share that goes back to the rivers and aquifers afterwards, and can then be used again.

Mostly, water used for irrigation is consumptive water. The amount changes from plant to plant. An almond needs different amounts of water than a carrot. Cows and sheep need more or less water, plus the water that the plants drank that they feed on. How a plant is watered and where it grows all make a difference. How and what an animal is fed makes an even bigger difference.

We consume some of the consumptive water when we eat the steak and chips but, it does not end there. Once the product is harvested or slaughtered, much more water starts entering the product-chain. Some people refer to this as virtual water.

A look at the water we cannot see

Virtual water is the water we cannot see, but is used to produce food and other products. The water necessary to produce the diesel, to run the truck to get the food to the shop is part of this; so is the water necessary to make the plastic bag to package the food.

Food produce at Johannesburg market.
Once food is harvested, its journey is far from over.

Statistics for virtual water abound. It is said that one avocado uses more than 125 litres of water to grow. Famously (though contested) figures would estimate the amount of litres to make a hamburger at 2 500! The list goes on. A cotton T-shirt? 2 700 litres. That cellphone? Almost 1 000 litres. In the world of food, the almond has become the bad boy of virtual water guzzlers. One nut? A cool 3.7 litres or so.

Still, chucking that hamburger for lunch and grabbing a carrot instead will not suddenly put a handy thousand or so litres back into your local reservoir. However, there are very easy ways to help ensure that we do not eat (or drink ) up the planet. Two particular habits will make a vast difference over time. The bonus? It’s free. You might even save money. Plus, you can start immediately.


Tip 1: Eat everything. Waste nothing 

Wasting food is probably the biggest middle finger you can give to the planet.

The amount of food we waste is staggering. The amount of water, and energy wasted in the process, is enough to bring you to tears. The situation is absurd. A third of the food produced globally is lost, or wasted and simply thrown away.

Before we run to the dustbin for breakfast, let’s look closer at what that means. Food that is produced but does not make it to the consumer, is called lost food. Bad farming methods, poor infrastructure, financial problems, mismanagement all lead to food being lost. This is where developing countries mostly lose food. Attitudes of retailers and consumers are responsible for most of the food wasted in the developed and industrialised world. More food is wasted in the developed world, than is lost in the developing world.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, or FAO, South and Southeast Asia are the smallest contributors to food loss and waste, followed by sub-Saharan Africa. For these countries together, the food loss per person per year is 460 kg.

The combined figures for Europe, North America and Oceania are double that at 900 kg per year.

Local figures are more handy when looking at the real impact of this, so let’s get back to South Africa.

Wasting food and water in South Africa

According to figures by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) food loss and waste in South Africa costs us at R61.5 billion. That is 2.1% of the country’s national GDP. Of this, about 0.8% of the national GDP, or R21.2 billion, is wasted in households.

The water wasted as a result could fill over 600 000 Olympic swimming pools. The cost of the embedded energy in all that wasted food is R1 billion (an approximate estimate of combined diesel and electricity cost).

The WWF puts food waste in perspective…

According to the WWF report, Food Loss and Waste: Facts and Futures “the energy wasted every year in South Africa for producing food that is never consumed is estimated as sufficient to power the City of Johannesburg for roughly 16 weeks.”

The report states that fruit and vegetables account for 44% of the food waste (though only contributing to 15% of the cost of wasted energy).

The problem of wasting food was also recently highlighted in a three-year project commissioned by the Lancet health journal. The project
details how we need to adapt our diets to keep people and the planet healthy, and it involved 37 specialists from 16 countries. They call it the Great Food Transformation.

A diet to save the world

One of the Lancet study’s findings was that we can stay within the planetary boundary for water use by working more wisely with our water and cutting food loss and waste at least by half.

According to the report, “substantially reducing the amount of food lost and wasted across the food supply chain, from production to consumption, is essential for the global food system to stay within its safe operating space.”

The study also provided guidelines for the ideal healthy diet. This brings us to our second diet tip.

Tip 2: Eat your fruit and vegetables

More fruits, more vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils are necessary for the Great Food Transformation. The diet plan also includes low to moderate amounts of seafood and poultry, and little to no amounts of red meat, processed meat, added sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables.

Globally, the commission calls for a reduction in more than 50% in global consumption of red meat and sugar. More than a 100% more nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes should be eaten.

The greatest savings in water use takes place on a vegetarian diet, they say. Diets that replaced ruminants with other alternatives, such as fish, poultry, and pork, also show reduced environmental effects, but to a smaller extent than plant-based alternatives.

The impact of food differs vastly depending on where, and how, it is grown. (This photo was taken while scooting past rice paddy workers in Sri Lanka.)

Now is perhaps a good time to mention that I come from a long line of meat eaters. After some digging, I found no record or mentioned of a vegetarian anywhere in the history of my family. I am also yet to become the first one.

Eating meat has become a somewhat contentious issue when the impact of food production on the planet is concerned. Yet, not all meat is created equal.

Not all meat is equally thirsty

One kilogram of red meat is often said to take 15 500 litres of water to produce. The cow drinks this water directly, or via its food, over the three years of its life before it is slaughtered.

This issue was highlighted recently in a local (South African) agricultural magazine, Die Landbouweekblad, in an interview with specialist scientist prof. Michiel Scholtz. He points out that the exorbitant estimates for water use (and other impacts on the environment) of red meat is often based on generic values from production methods in the northern hemisphere.

In other places, the water used for red meat production is estimated at 18 to 540 liters per kilogram. The difference depends on the production method and land management. In many areas animals graze on natural vegetation, or feed grown with water stored in the soil after rain, lowering the environmental impact substantially.

Using this land for crops instead of livestock can also have negative consequences. According to the Lancet study, water use could increase by 1% to 9% when thirsty plants like nuts and legumes are grown, instead of animal products and sugar. This is because nuts and legumes are very thirsty – more so than certain production processes for meat.

Think before you eat

In a nutshell (excuse the pun) sustainable eating is about sustainable thinking. Think before you buy food. Especially think before you waste any food. Think before you eat food – whichever food you choose. If this includes meat, try to eat locally reared and pasture fed meat.

Alternatively, go to Elandsbay. There’s a bar there with a farmer who might just share a bit of locally reared lamb with you. Just a word of warning: you might regret it the next morning.

Take note…

Your water footprint is indeed much more than what you use in your home. Still, don’t underestimate the impact of the water you use directly. Just ask any Capetonian that was recently limited to only 50 litres a day, in order to help the city from running out! To save water at home is really easy. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to do that. What about your garden? A lot of water goes there too. Here are the top ten tips to save water there. Why does all of this matter? Why should we save water? Read this.

Follow these two diet tips to save water, the planet and yourself. Sustainable eating is easier than you think!
Follow the two ultimate diet tips to save water, the planet and yourself. Sustainable eating is easier than you think!

Comments 12

  1. Wow! Food for thought (pun intended he he). Thank you for sharing with so many stats and details! I think most people realize that meat consumes a lot of water, but to see everything laid out with other foods to consider as well is really a lot of information to digest.

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      Kayla yes! Quite a meaty piece of work if I have to say so myself. Peppered with handy stats even! But back to the juicy bits: Actually, I think any green, eco and enviro movement loses face, fans and credibility when misleading info is used to push for a cause. Then we’re not doing much better than everybody else. Even worse if fingers are pointed at people like farmers, for example, based on false information. Does not help at all.
      Thanks for checking in!

  2. This is great! Was talking about this study a lot as well and I really like your conclusion: Thinking before and about what we’re eating is the most important part. Thanks for all these details!

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      Hi Hanna! And, have you noticed the reports that are now emerging pointing to the gaps and faults in the Lancet study? It’s very interesting to keep an eye on developments. I do think the best that you can do is to apply some brain power (and perhaps some more research) and consider things for yourself before make any choices. It’s more effort, but hey! Worth it in the end 😉

      Come back soon!

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      Thanks Addie! After heaps of reading and research on sustainable diets, the impact of what we eat and the economic and nutritional contribution of farming especially in Africa, I really do believe that these are two of the most helpful tips we need to move forward (plus, this diet includes wine and chocolate – major win!!)

  3. Interesting stats!! I know that in the news recently there has been a lot of interest in the vegan diet, and they’ve been saying that the more people that do it the better for the planet and les pollution etc, but I didn’t know threat we needed to reduce intake of red meat by over 50%! That’s an eye opener!

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      Hey Leanne! Yes, meat eating really has been getting some bad press, but I think the details are not being reported on enough. I still think eating meat can also have positive impacts, especially in developing countries, and if the consumer buys right. What do you think?

  4. Wow. The information is this post is really food for thought. That graphic of the water waste we can’t see is shocking! It’s just staggering to see food waste visually explained in that way. Thank you for putting this together.

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      Food for thought, indeed 😉 But yes, I’m still astounded at the impact that we really have on the planet, even though we already try to tread lightly.

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