EU Science Hub

The water footprint of the EU for different diets

May 10 2013

A recently published article, co-authored by a JRC scientist, explores potential solutions to the increasing competition for scarce global freshwater resources by analysing the water footprint of consumption (WFcons) for different diets in the EU28 (EU27 and Croatia). The article, published in Ecological Indicators, finds that reducing meat consumption could help make significant water footprint (WF) savings.

The water footprint concept links the use of water resources to the consumption of goods. The EU28 water footprint of consumption is defined as total volume of freshwater that is used to produce the goods consumed by its inhabitants. Animal products, especially meat, have a high water footprint. The average EU28 diet is characterised by overconsumption, particularly of animal products. A healthy diet would contain less sugar, crop oils, meat and animal fats, and more vegetables and fruit.

The study compares four different dietary scenarios. It takes the current EU28 average diet (based on the period 1996-2005) as the reference scenario, and compares this with a recommended healthy diet (based on the recommendations of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ernährung), a vegetarian diet (which includes dairy products but no meat or fish) and a combination of the latter two.

The EU28 WFcons regarding agricultural products for different diet scenarios
©EU, 2013



It finds that each of the three alternative dietary scenarios would result in a substantial reduction of the EU28 water footprint of consumption, with the lowest WFcons resulting from the vegetarian diet scenario. The highest WFcons savings are attributed to a reduction of meat intake, followed by reducing oil and sugar intake.

Today’s dichotomous world faces drastically opposing dietary-related problems: hunger and obesity. By 2050, it will have to sustain a projected 9.3 billion people, and it will have to find ways to do this that are more resource-efficient. Water stress, which is significant in several EU28 river basins, could be relieved given appropriate water resources management decisions. Modifying consumption diets and optimising the sustainable use of EU water resources for domestic production could provide possible solutions to this growing problem.