One of the considerations of food and crop production in agriculture is the water they require.
Some foods and crops take more water resources to make and produce than others.
In this short guide, we list the foods that take the most water to produce and make according to different measurements and indicators.
(Note – you may also like to read this guide which is slightly broader, and outlines how much water both the foods, and the everyday products we use take to produce)
Summary – Foods & Crops That Use The Most Water To Make/Produce
Agriculture uses about 70% of freshwater withdrawals globally on average (but, that percentage can be more or less in different individual countries)
Breaking down total agricultural water use, beef can make up a major % of that total, with feed for cattle using a lot of water (but, this can depend on what and how cattle are fed)
There’s a number of ways that the water footprint of different food products can be measured – per weight of food produced, per calorie produced, per gram of protein produced, per serving, and even per economic value or dollar produced (amongst other measurements)
In terms of water per weight produced – animal meat, and in particular beef can be one of the most water intensive foods.
Poultry can be one of the least water intensive meats.
Other foods containing animal by products, and processed foods can also be water intensive, such as dairy (milk, cheese, butter), chocolate, and even beverages like coffee, soda, beer and wine, and fruit juices (as these beverages often require the growing of plants or crops as part of the ingredients)
Some sources in particular identify chocolate as being one of the most water intensive foods to produce per kg of weight. Although, per serving, chocolate can fall further down the list
Drinking pure water may be the more sustainable drink option compared to the above beverages which have extra processing steps
Nuts like peanuts, almonds and ground nuts can fall somewhere between moderate to high water use
Cabbage and lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, oranges, corn and potatoes can be some of the least water intensive foods per unit of weight produced
Not all plant based foods have low water footprints though – with olives and rice paddy specifically requiring more water than other plant based foods
When looking at food from a water usage per unit of nutritional value produced, the picture looks similar – with beef requiring a lot of water per gram of protein and fat produced, as well per kilocalorie produced.
But fruits for protein, and fruits and starchy roots for fat need far more water than beef, which is interesting
Water wasted from food waste is an important measure to include in food water footprints. When considering this factor, vegetables and fruits may have a higher water footprint due to their often higher wastage rates … resulting from their perishable nature
There’s many variables to the water footprint of foods – farming method used, irrigated vs rainfed crops, local climate, are just a few variables that can massively impact water footprints
Lastly, water volume is only one measurement of the impact of producing food. There’s many other impacts to take into consideration, with one being the livelihood that agriculture provides for people in low income regions.
Local context of what a product or service provides to a community, and it’s full impact, is not represented with a single water footprint number
How Much Water Does Agriculture Use Overall As An Industry?
Globally, on average, agriculture is responsible for 70% of fresh water withdrawals.
But, that percentage can differ from country to country.
In the US for example:
- … agriculture accounts for 38 percent of the nation’s freshwater withdrawals but it accounts for approximately 80 to 90 percent of the nation’s consumptive water use (watercalculator.org)
Which Food Products Within Agriculture Are Major Water Users?
The total agricultural fresh water usage percentage can further be broken down into the different agricultural products and industries – different animal meats, vegetables, fruits, grains, etc.
Animal meats and particularly beef may be a major water user – one estimate from news.thomasnet.com is ’29 percent of the total water footprint of the agricultural sector in the world is related to the production of animal products. One-third of that water is used to raise beef cattle.’
Water Footprints Of Different Foods & Beverages
Water required per unit of food weight or beverage volume is:
- Chocolate – 17,196 litres per 1kg
- Beef Meat- 15,415 litres per 1kg
- Sheep Meat – 10,412 litres per 1kg
- Pork Meat – 5988 litres per 1kg
- Butter – 5553 litres per 1kg
- Chicken Meat – 4325 litres per 1kg
- Cheese – 3178 litres per 1kg
- Olives – 3025 litres per 1kg
- Paddy Rice – 2497 litres per 1kg
- Cotton – 2495 litres per 250g
- Pasta (Dry) – 1849 litres per 1kg
- Bread – 1608 litres per 1kg
- Pizza – 1239 litres per 1kg
- Apple – 822 litres per 1kg
- Banana – 790 litres per 1kg
- Potatoes – 287 litres per 1kg
- Milk – 255 litres per 250ml glass
- Cabbage & Lettuce – 237 litres per 1kg
- Tomato – 214 litres per 1kg
- Egg – 196 litres per one 60 gram egg
- Wine – 109 litres per 250ml glass
- Beer – 74 litres per 250ml glass
- Tea – 27 litres per 250ml cup
Additionally, meat production requires a much higher amount of water than vegetables. … to produce 1kg of meat requires between 5,000 and 20,000 litres of water, whereas to produce 1kg of wheat requires between 500 and 4,000 litres of water.
It takes this much water to produce a kilogram (litres per kilogram) of the following common foods, and also specific volumes of the following beverages:
- Coffee (roasted beans) – 18,900 Litres (132L per 125ml cup)
- Chocolate – 17,196 Litres (1700L per 3.5 oz bar)
- Beef – 15,415 Litres
- Tea – 8,860 Litres (27L per 250ml cup)
- Pork – 5,988 Litres
- Chicken – 4,325 Litres
- Eggs – 3,267 Litres
- Olives – 3,015 Litres
- Rice – 2,497 Litres
- Soybeans – 2,145 Litres
- Wheat – 1,827 Litres
- Sugar (cane) – 1,782 Litres
- Barley – 1,423 Litres
- Corn – 1,222 Litres
- Milk – 1,020 Litres (225L per 250ml cup)
- Apples – 822 Litres (125L per apple)
- Bananas – 790 Litres (160L per banana)
- Beer – 298 Litres (74L per 250ml cup)
- Potatoes – 287 Litres (260L per large bag of chips)
The average virtual water content of some selected products in the USA in m3/ton is:
- Beef – 13,193 m3/tons of virtual water
- Sheep Meat – 5977 m3/tons of virtual water
- Coffee (roasted) – 5790 m3/tons of virtual water
- Coffee (green) – 4864 m3/tons of virtual water
- Pork – 3946 m3/tons of virtual water
- Cheese – 3457 m3/tons of virtual water
- Milk Powder – 3234 m3/tons of virtual water
- Goat Meat – 3082 m3/tons of virtual water
- Chicken Meat – 2389 m3/tons of virtual water
- Millet – 2143 m3/tons of virtual water
- Rice (broken) – 1903 m3/tons of virtual water
- Soybeans – 1869 m3/tons of virtual water
- Rice (husked) – 1,656 m3/tons of virtual water
- Eggs – 1510 m3/tons of virtual water
- Rice (paddy) – 1275 m3/tons of virtual water
- Wheat – 849 m3/tons of virtual water
- Sorghum – 782 m3/tons of virtual water
- Barley – 702 m3/tons of virtual water
- Milk – 695 m3/tons of virtual water
- Maize – 489 m3/tons of virtual water
- Sugarcane – 103 m3/tons of virtual water
According to the interactive product gallery on WaterFootPrint.org, other water estimations to produce other food products are:
- Coffee – 132 litres per 125 ml
- Cucumber or Pumpkin – 353 litres per 1kg
- Orange – 560 litres per 1kg
- Peach Or Nectarine – 910 litres per 1kg
- Sugar (from sugar beet) – 920 litres per 1kg
- Maize/Corn – 1222 litres per 1kg
- Margherita Pizza – 1259 litres per 1kg
- Sugar (from sugar cane) – 1782 litres per 1kg
- Mango/Guava – 1800 litres per 1kg
- Dates – 2277 litres per 1kg
- Groundnuts/Peanuts – 2782 litres per 1kg
- Milk Power – 4745 litres per 1kg
- Goat Meat – 5521 litres per 1kg
- The global average water footprint of chicken meat is about 4330 litre/kg.
- The water footprint of chicken meat is smaller than the footprints of meat from beef cattle (15400 litre/kg), sheep (10400 litre/kg), pig (6000 litre/kg) or goat (5500 litre/kg).
- The water footprint related to the animal feed takes by far the largest share (99%) in the total water footprint of beef. Drinking and service water contribute only 1% toward the total water footprint. One piece of beef can be very different from another piece. The precise water footprint of beef strongly depends on the production system from which the beef is derived (grazing, mixed or industrial), the composition of the feed and the origin of the feed. Due to the large feed conversion efficiency, beef from industrial systems generally has a lower total water footprint than beef from mixed or grazing systems.
- The water footprint of sheep meat strongly depends on the production system from which the meat is derived (grazing, mixed or industrial), the composition of the feed and the origin of the feed.
- The average water footprint per calorie for pork is five times larger than for cereals and starchy roots.
- The average water footprint per gram of protein in the case of pork is three times larger than for pulses.
The following food items have the following water footprints:
- Cereal (25 grams) – 41 litres of water
- Milk (250ml) – 255 litres of water
- Egg (one) – 200 litres of water
- One Hamburger – 2808 litres of water. Two hamburger buns are 85 litres, One 6oz beef patty is 2626 litres, one leaf of lettuce is 1 litre, one slice of tomato is 6 litres, one slice of cheese is 90 litres
- One Coke (335ml) – 124 litres of water
- One Beef Steak (8oz) – 3496 litres of water
- Corn (a half ear) – 277 litres
- Baked Potato (one) – 108 litres of water
The average American might have a water footprint of over 7000 litres a day based on the food they eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily
Of an average American’s daily water footprint, 50% goes towards diet and food (30% energy, 10% products and 10% home use).
The thirstiest foods grown in California are animal based foods like Beef, Pork, Chicken, Dairy milk and Eggs.
Other food items and their gallons of water needed per serving are:
- Beef steak (6 oz serving) – 675 gallons
- Pork (6 oz serving) – 288 gallons
- Chicken (6 oz serving) – 234 gallons
- Rice (1 cup, cooked – 56 gallons
- Cheese (1.5 oz) – 56 gallons
- Milk (1 cup serving) – 55 gallons
- Eggs (1 egg) – 53 gallons
- Bread (1 slice) – 11 gallons
- Chocolate (1 oz) – 198 gallons
- Wine (6 oz) – 47.6 gallons
- Coffee (1 cup) – 37 gallons
- Pistachio (49 pistachios) – 37 gallons
- Walnut (12 to 14 walnut halves) – 34 gallons
- Corn (1 ear) – 27 gallons
- Potato (1 cup) – 30 gallons
- Almond (23 almonds) – 25 gallons
- Beer (8 oz glass) – 19.8 gallons
- Apple (1 apple) – 18 gallons
- Oranges (1 orange) – 14 gallons
- Tea (1 cup) – 8 gallons
- Grapes (15 grapes) – 4 gallons
- Tomato (1 tomato) – 3 gallons
- Strawberry (8 medium strawberries) – 3 gallons
- Broccoli (1 cup) – 2.7 gallons
- Lettuce (1 cup) – 0.7 gallons
- Sugar (1 tsp) – 2.1 gallons
The water footprints of different foods in gallons of water consumed per pound of food (except for beverages, whose volumes are listed) are:
- Lettuce — 15 gallons;
- Tomatoes — 22 gallons;
- Cabbage — 24 gallons;
- Cucumber — 28 gallons;
- Potatoes — 30 gallons;
- Oranges — 55 gallons;
- Apples — 83 gallons;
- Bananas — 102 gallons;
- Corn — 107 gallons;
- Peaches or Nectarines — 142 gallons;
- Wheat Bread — 154 gallons;
- Mango — 190 gallons;
- Avocado — 220 gallons;
- Tofu — 244 gallons;
- Groundnuts — 368 gallons;
- Rice — 403 gallons;
- Olives — 522 gallons;
- Chocolate — 2847 gallons; (One pound of chocolate being quite a serving of chocolate…)
- Eggs — 573 gallons;
- Chicken — 815 gallons;
- Cheese — 896 gallons;
- Pork — 1630 gallons;
- Butter — 2044 gallons;
- Beef — 2500-5000 gallons; (Global figures for the water intensity of beef vary so significantly that an average isn’t particularly informative, so a range of figures is given) – for example, how the cattle are raised and water intensity of feed are important to the final water footprint
- Tea (8oz) — 7 gallons;
- Beer, barley (8oz) — 36 gallons;
- Coffee (8oz) — 29 gallons;
- Wine (8oz) — 58 gallons;
In terms of plant based foods and fruits:
- Plums require 261 gal./lb.
- Apricots 154 gal./lb.
- Peaches 109 gal./lb.
- Avocados are also higher on the list at 141 gal./lb.,
- Apples, bananas, grapes, and kiwis all take less than 100 gal./lb.
- Strawberries, pineapple, and watermelon require less than 50 gallons of water per pound of fruit
Water Footprint Of Foods By Nutritional Value
By nutritional value, this is how the following common food groups compare:
Litres per kilocalorie
- Sugar crops – 0.69
- Vegetables – 1.34
- Starchy roots – 0.47
- Fruits – 2.09
- Cereals – 0.51
- Oil crops – 0.81
- Pulses – 1.19
- Nuts – 3.63
- Milk – 1.82
- Eggs – 2.29
- Chicken meat – 3
- Butter – 0.72
- Pig meat – 2.15
- Sheep and goat meat – 4.25
- Beef – 10.19
Litres per gram of protein
- Sugar crops – 0
- Vegetables – 26
- Starchy roots – 31
- Fruits – 180
- Cereals – 21
- Oil crops – 16
- Pulses – 19
- Nuts – 139
- Milk – 31
- Eggs – 29
- Chicken meat – 34
- Butter – 0
- Pig meat – 57
- Sheep and goat meat – 63
- Beef – 112
Litres per gram of fat
- Sugar crops – 0
- Vegetables – 154
- Starchy roots – 226
- Fruits – 348
- Cereals – 112
- Oil crops – 11
- Pulses – 180
- Nuts – 47
- Milk – 33
- Eggs – 33
- Chicken meat – 43
- Butter – 6.4
- Pig meat – 23
- Sheep and goat meat – 54
- Beef – 153
You can read more at:
- Product Water Footprint Of Crops & Animal Products (waterfootprint.org)
- Water Footprint Of Animal Products (waterfootprint.org)
- What You Need To Know About Sustainable Diets (wri.org)
Note with proteins and fats and different nutritional units, not all proteins for example are equal – there are whole and non whole proteins.
Comparing Water Use For Production Of Common Foods & Drinks
All figures are based on gallons of water needed to produce a pound of each item or a gallon of each drink:
- Tea vs Coffee – Tea wins.
- Wine vs Beer – Beer wins.
- Beef vs Chicken vs Lamb vs Pork vs Eggs – Chicken wins for meats, but eggs win overall.
- Cheese vs Butter vs Milk (dairy products) – Milk wins, followed by cheese, then butter.
- Tofu vs Lentils vs Chickpeas vs Soybeans – Soybeans and tofu win
- Rice vs Pasta vs Bread vs Barley – Bread wins
- Oats vs Potatoes vs Sweet Potatoes vs Corn – Unprocessed potatoes win
- Broccoli vs Cauliflower vs Brussel Sprouts vs Asparagus – Brocolli, cauliflower and brussel sprouts win
- Olives vs Garlic – Garlic wins
- Tomato vs Eggplant vs Artichokes vs Cucumbers vs Lettuce – Tomatoes and lettuce win
- Hazelnuts and Walnuts vs Almonds & Cashews vs Pistachios – Walnuts win
- Figs vs Raisins & Dates – Dates win
- Stone Fruit vs Citrus – Strawberries, pineapple, and watermelon win
- Olive Oil vs Corn, Sunflower & Soybean Oil vs Coconut Oil – Corn oil wins
- Chocolate vs Cocoa Powder vs Vanilla Beans – Cocoa powder wins
- Cinnamon vs Mint vs Ginger – Peppermint and ginger win
- [See the full numbers at huffingtonpost.com.au]
In terms of water per gram of protein (instead of water per pound of food) – some of the better foods are pulses (including beans, lentils, peas, etc.) at 5 gallons per gram of protein, followed by eggs at 7.7 gal./gram, milk at 8.2 gal./gram, and chicken at 9 gal./gram. The numbers only go up from there, with beef topping the scale, requiring 29.6 gallons of water per gram of protein.
Eating fewer animal products and more plant products will reduce your water footprint, as will eating less-processed foods.
Comparing Meat vs Fruit & Vegetables, Sustainable Farming & Food Waste – In Relation To Water Footprints
Read more about these topics at:
Meat vs Fruit & Vegetables, Sustainable Farming & Food Waste – Water Footprints (watercalculator.org)
Having A Snack – Which Is Better – A Chocolate Bar, Or A Banana?
Aside from health and nutrition considerations, when looking at a water footprint, a banana might be better:
- It takes … 450 gallons (1700 liters) of water to make a typical 3.5-ounce (100-gram) chocolate bar. Most of those gallons are consumed by the cocoa plants in the field.
- The global average water footprint (per kg) is 860 litres for bananas, and 24,000 litres for chocolate
So, bananas might come out on top as a snack.
There’s the global water footprint of other foods available here (waterfootprint.org)
A Note On Water Usage For The Production Of Food Products
Water requirements differ between farmers, states/provinces, countries and so on. The above numbers are a general guide only.
To get the most accurate view on how much water it takes to produce a food item – you have to break it down by the farming method of an individual farmer in a specific location.
Also, there are factors such as living in a state or country with high rainfall rates, that might make water use irrelevant.
Whereas living in a dry, water scarce place makes water usage very important.
In addition, with food, you can’t just look at litres of water per amount of weight.
You have to look at litres of water per calorie, amount of protein, amount of fat, amount of carbohydrates etc. – to get an even idea of the nutrition the food brings.
Water Wasted In Food Production
- Nearly 4.2 trillion gallons of irrigation water were applied to cropland that was used to produce uneaten food.
- The majority of wasted irrigation water was applied to cropland used to produce fruits (1.3 trillion gallons), vegetables (1.05 trillion gallons), and hay (1.01 trillion gallons).
So, vegetables and fruits are responsible for more waste of irrigated water at the production stage than animal based products.
Irrigated water use contributes to freshwater scarcity, whereas rain fed crops tend to be better from a sustainability point of view.
15. Conrad, Z., Niles, M.T., Neher, D.A., Roy, E.D., Tichenor, N.E. and Jahns, L., 2018. Relationship between food waste, diet quality, and environmental sustainability. PloS one, 13(4), p.e0195405. – https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0195405