Water Usage

How much water does it take to grow or raise this ingredient?

Jemima Snow avatar
Written by Jemima Snow
Updated over a week ago

Note: The Water Usage metric was replaced with the Blue Water Usage metric on August 4, 2022.

What is Water Usage?

The water needs of a given animal or crop can impact the overall water quality in that region, potentially causing erosion, contamination, and restriction of the flow of local water systems. Water Usage shows whether a crop's needs are likely to be met by rainfall alone, or require significant irrigation.

How does Water Usage relate to agriculture, product development, and the food system?

70% of global freshwater withdrawals are used for the irrigation of crops for human consumption and for feeding animals raised for meat.

Agricultural water usage is commonly divided into three categories:

  1. Green water: refers to rainwater that comes from natural precipitation

  2. Blue water: water that is provided to crops through irrigation

  3. Grey water: a measure of water impacted by the runoff of soil, nutrients, and synthetic chemicals from farms into regional water systems

The unfortunate truth is that most crops need an enormous amount of water to grow. When that's entirely from rainfall, there's almost no negative impact. Nearly three-quarters of the world’s cropland is rainfed, but unfortunately, rainfed crops are especially exposed to drought – which is being worsened by climate change in many parts of the world.

What are the biggest contributors to high Water Usage impact?

The ingredients with the highest Water Usage impact are:

The regions with the worst water scarcity and pressures are:

  • Middle East

  • India

  • Southern Europe

  • Northern Africa

  • Southern California

  • Northern Mexico

That isn’t to say you should never source an ingredient from these regions, it just means that if you do you should pay extra attention to ingredient type and on-farm practices.

How do we measure Water Usage impact?

Water Usage is calculated as the total liters of on-farm water required to produce 1kg of ingredient, weighted by the sensitivity of local water tables to drought. High water usage in a drought-sensitive area is far more impactful than high water usage in a hydrologically abundant location.

Water usage is measured by the total water needs of an individual crop and the water sensitivity of the region where that crop is grown. To put water usage into context across varying agricultural systems, HowGood uses all three categories, (green, blue, and grey water), as a crop’s total water impact because measuring only irrigated water use, for example, undermines the accuracy of measurements across geographical regions.

Certain regions grow very water-intensive crops but annual precipitation is so high, (at least for now), that it doesn’t put as much strain on water resources as growing it in a place like Southern California. Conversely, if a region grows a crop that is relatively non-water-intensive but the area is under extreme water stress, water usage is considered high.

Key Data Sources

We use water scarcity research and data to assess how much pressure water systems in any geographical area are under.

How can you make a difference as a product developer?

  1. Choose a different source location. Since water usage is highly dependent on geography, changing the location where the source material is grown can have a significant impact on water usage.

  2. Choose a different crop or ingredient. If you are using an ingredient that is water-intensive, one of the simplest ways to improve water usage is to choose a different ingredient that is less so, or reduce the amount of the ingredient significantly.

  3. Change growing practices. On-farm practices can have some effect on water usage, though it is highly dependent on the type of crop. Transitioning to dry-farming for crops like almonds or wine that typically grow well in arid climates can reduce water usage and has the added benefit of reducing input and irrigation costs. Drip irrigation systems and mulching can reduce the water that is lost to evaporation. Contour farming—planting rows of crops along the contour of the land rather than in straight rows—acts as a natural barrier to erosion by creating small ledges for the water to pool in and absorb into the soil.

  4. Source animal-based ingredients with their inputs in mind. Ingredients that need the most water are animal-based ingredients because of inefficient feed conversion ratios—meaning to produce a crop you need to use a certain amount of water, whereas to raise an animal you need water for crops to feed the animals and water for the animals. Ideally, animals can be grass-fed or raised on forage, but if that’s not possible, sourcing feed that is less water-intensive is key.

How does my ingredient portfolio compare to others in the industry when it comes to Water Usage?

The Water Usage metric was replaced with the Blue Water Usage metric on August 4, 2022. It can no longer be used to benchmark against industry or sales category averages.

What is the relationship to the HowGood Impact Score?

The Water Usage metric was replaced with the Blue Water Usage metric on August 4, 2022. It no longer contributes to the HowGood Impact Score.

Ingredients Along the Water Usage Impact Spectrum

Further Resources

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