Fri, November 02, 2018   |    Download PDF of this article

This past year, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization called global attention to the link between sustainable management of water resources, food production, and the food industry. The way we eat—both dietary patterns and how we grow our food—dramatically impacts how much water each person requires, varying around the world from 2,000 to 5,000 liters per day. By 2050, feeding a world of 10 billion people may require us to increase food production by 50 percent or perhaps much less depending on how we choose to eat. And, while far below the doubling of food production often bandied about, achieving a 50 percent increase is a substantial challenge, especially given that as much as two-thirds of the world’s population will live in water-stressed countries by 2025.

Agricultural production is responsible for over 70 percent of global water demand, and more than two-thirds of global water consumption is for irrigated agriculture, which provides 40 percent of global agricultural production. With the price and availability of food so dependent on water resources, jobs in the foodservice industry are as well.

Food production, particularly raising livestock, also can pollute and further stress water resources.

Fertilizer and manure can run off into surface waters and into groundwater, although better management practices including planted buffers, nutrient and manure, and drainage management efforts can reduce or eliminate water pollution. Relying on pastured livestock production also can reduce water use and better protect water quality compared to feedlot production methods, offering this and other environmental benefits beyond addressing climate change. For over two years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has delayed actions to manage agricultural pollution of surface water. Few states (such as California) actively manage fertilizer and manure discharge to groundwater. This makes it even more important to see efforts by foodservice companies to purchase from farmers and ranchers who take voluntary steps to conserve and protect water resources.

The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that nearly half of global gross domestic product (GDP), more than half of the global population, and 40 percent of grain production could be at risk due to water stress by 2050. These are no small matters for the foodservice industry. Water stress will be driven by increased urban demands as population increases, especially in developing countries, but even more so by increasing demand for agricultural production of foods. In past years, we have pointed out in this report how animal foods are sometimes particularly water intensive (please see Figure 3 on page 35 of the Annual Report). The food and foodservice industry, through its close relationship with agriculture, has a critical role to play in addressing increased water security. Specifically, there is a need for more menu innovation around options that reduce the emphasis on red meat and emphasize plant-based foods.

A 2016 MIT study showed that climate change will also alter growing conditions and water demands for many major food staples due to both increased temperature and changes in precipitation patterns and amounts. Climate change and growing food demands will be challenging for water resource management, while potentially also reducing protein and nutrient quality of cereals. As in prior years, the United Nations urges additional efforts in 2018 and beyond to adapt to increasing water stress to avoid potentially dramatic effects on trade and migration as a result of drastic economic losses from dwindling reliable water supplies.

Warmer—and in some parts of the world, drier— climate conditions will contribute significantly to increased water demand in some agricultural regions. In the U.S., 2017 brought relief to drought-stricken California, which officially called an end to a five-year drought cycle, although Plains states remained abnormally dry. But with winter precipitation scarce in much of California, a new drought cycle has already begun this year. The prior drought cycle caused more than $2.5 billion in economic impact. And the continued year-by-year, season-by-season focus on weather forecasts highlights the extensive current risk and lack of preparedness facing our food supply chains.

Engagement on water footprint and water sustainability is not a matter of one-size-fits-all. Unlike carbon emissions, which have similar effects around the globe, pound for pound, each watershed and each groundwater basin has its own unique structure and set of complex issues. Like other food sectors, foodservice companies can discover and adopt innovative solutions to reduce water consumption, increase water reuse, and decrease waste discharge, including food waste discharge. Food waste in particular represents significant potential for reduced water use, namely through the “virtual water” waste embedded in food’s water footprint.

More importantly, the foodservice industry may realize even larger water sustainability impacts by increasing its role in diverse local, regional, and global partnerships with agricultural and food suppliers to help reduce water—including groundwater—risks in agricultural production and move toward sustainable farming practices. Chefs and foodservice providers can adjust menus by understanding the impacts of food production. Menu decision-makers may favor sustainable suppliers, while also minimizing the water footprint and water quality impacts across the food portfolio that a menu represents. Increasing the appeal of plant-forward menu options would be one such step in the right direction.

Many restaurants and operations in cities or areas that are or have been drought-stricken indicate on their menu that water will only be served upon request. This simple note, which a verbal announcement from the server can further emphasize, brings awareness of the local scarcity of water. Doing so should not be construed as equivalent to developing a menu that pays careful attention to the water resources associated with different foods or to the relative water efficiency of an operator’s dishwashing facilities, which have a far greater impact than serving tap water or not. However, the note can be a worthwhile educational gesture, as a way to engage diners in a conversation about the importance of water conservation, but far beyond that, chefs and operators need to design menus that are less water intensive and make that process transparent to their consumers so they too can think about how to reduce their water consumption at home. This can take the form of notes on the menu or on a website, or as part of a newsletter that operations send their subscribers, for example. Sharing tips that have proved useful in a commercial setting with consumers will not only help make everyone more environmentally responsible, but can also strengthen the relationship between business and customer.


The U.S. foodservice industry is beginning to pay attention to water issues as drought and groundwater depletion have weighed heavily on profits in recent years.


Agricultural production is responsible for over 70 percent of global water demand. Long-term water security is closely tied to food security and the economic success of the foodservice industry. Climate change, population growth, and dietary changes are putting increasing pressures on global water resources.