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Water Footprint Dips Toes Into Sustainability Labeling Zeitgeist

Just when you thought it was safe to wade back in to the supermarket, two UK groups push for publishing water usage on all food labels.

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woman and beef

Say “carbon footprint” to almost anyone, and they’ll know what you’re talking about. Now try the same thing with “water footprint.” Blank stares, right? Undaunted, two groups are calling for U.K. food to carry a label reflecting the amount of water that goes into the product’s consumption.

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The move by the Food Ethics Council and the Sustain campaign group makes sense: Water is an incredibly valuable resource. And different food products consume different quantities of water during their creation: about 37 gallons of the wet stuff go into the creation of that cup of coffee you’re enjoying, while a pound of beef needs almost 2,000 gallons for the cow.

cows drinking

That said, water is so ubiquitous and commonplace in the developed world that the
average Joe in the street barely thinks about it (at least
until a watering ban ruins his garden plants and front lawn). Of course beef needs more water than coffee beans; the cow has to live for a number of years and drinks plenty during that time. If you end up labeling food via a gallons-per-pound (liters-per-kilo in the U.K., of course) scheme, then you discriminate against meat. Even vegetables look bad compared with the meager water consumption of grains. As a result, all the lobbying is going to concentrate on labels that promote companies that practice good “water stewardship” and limit waste during production.

In a world where so many things clamor for our attention, each vying to out-PR the other’s eco-friendliness, that sort of label is just going to go unnoticed by most consumers.

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)

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