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Enjoy your coffee – you may soon not be able to afford it


The price of food that requires heavy use of water for production may race up, particularly beef, coffee and oranges. Photograph: Andy Sacks/Stone


Powered by article titled “Enjoy your coffee – you may soon not be able to afford it” was written by Joanne O’Connell, for on Wednesday 9th July 2014 09.24 UTC

Four pints of milk for £1; a jar of instant coffee for 47 pence; a family pack of beef frying steaks for £2.28*; these are the kind of rock-bottom prices that many in the west have become accustomed to paying for household essentials. But the prices of everyday groceries like these may rise significantly as the global water crisis worsens.

When you look at a loaf of bread or a slab of beef the water content might not be the first thing that springs to mind. But these are among the most water-heavy foods and as the world’s available water supply dries up, we will increasingly no longer be able to afford them.

“The era of free water is over,” says Dan Crossley, executive director at the Food Ethics Council: “We’re likely to have to pay more for drinking water and for the water that goes into growing and making our food. We can expect to see food prices yo-yo-ing up and down in the future, but on a general upward trend.”

Water-heavy or water-rich foods are the products which demand a particularly high level of water to produce them. This water is often referred to as embedded water or virtual water. With meat, for example, it’s the water that’s needed for the crops, which are grown to feed the animals as well as the water involved in the process of raising and slaughtering the animals. Factory-farmed beef is an example of an incredibly water-heavy food as it takes ninety bath tubs worth of water (15,000 litres) to produce a single kilogramme.

Water availability is a major issue because of climate change (widespread floods and droughts), the global expansion of the western diet (the shift in China, for example, to eating more meat and dairy), a rising world population and our insatiable demand for biofuels.

As the UK imports much of its food, we’re effectively importing the water it takes to grow it, says Melvyn Kay, a spokesperson for the UK Irrigation Association. He says that for example, we’re buying potatoes from Egypt, grown with water from the Nile and this means we’re literally importing water from the Nile, a precious resource.

He says: “In the future, it’s unlikely that countries will be able to afford to export their water to us like this. But it’s probably going to take price hikes in certain foods for people in the UK to realise the extent of problems with the global water situation.”

Beef – a thirsty meat

Meat is generally a water-heavy food, though it depends on the circumstances – if animals are kept on the land and not intensively factory reared, it’s more efficient. For factory farmed meat, however, it takes 33 bathtubs of water to produce a single kilo of pork and 24 bathtubs go into a kilo of chicken but beef tops the list: it soaks up 90 bathtubs. It’s forty times more water intensive to produce factory-farm meat than it is to keep animals on the land, according to Philip Lymbery, author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat.

Lymbery says: “Cattle on pasture eats grass that’s watered by rainfall. But if you take cattle off pasture and put it in enclosures and feed it human-edible crops, which demand a lot of water to produce, it’s far less sustainable.”

The bottom line is that over the next few years, the price of factory farmed meat may soar, says Lymbery. However, he points out that if prices of factory meat rise, there could be a drop in the price of pasture-fed, sustainable beef, as the demand for this product would rise.


Tea is a very delicate crop which is highly sensitive to water. It grows predominantly in eastern sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, which are exactly the areas where climate change is likely to hit hardest, says Simon Billing, senior sustainability adviser at Forum for the Future, who works with the multi-stakeholder project Tea 2030. “It’s also a labour-intensive crop, and as people increasingly want to work in factories and in cities, this may also push up the price of tea.”

While the tea industry is working on how to breed more resistant crops and cope with the water crisis, the key message is that if we want to enjoy a cuppa in the future, we need to value it now.

“The cheapest of the cheap is not sustainable when it comes to tea,” says Billing: “We may think of it as an everyday product but unless we’re prepared to pay a little extra and for that money to be passed along the supply chain, we risk it being a luxury product in the future.”


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