Water Intensive Crops
Water intensive crops are often grown in preference to crops that use less water as water intensive crops will yield a higher value product. Two of the three most water intensive edible crops in Australia are sugarcane and almonds. The sugarcane crop in Australia was worth $1.33 billion in 2022 while the almond crop was worth $800 million. It takes on average 210 L of water to produce 1 kg of sugarcane. Almond farming is even more water intensive than sugarcane production. The global average water footprint to produce a single almond is 12 L of water.
Food staples (such as corn, rice, soy and wheat) also consume a lot of water due to the large volumes that are grown. Of these, rice and wheat are the most water intensive and are often grown in water stressed regions. A kilogram of paddy rice requires 2,500 L of water to grow. Rice is currently grown in regions facing extreme water stress such as Chad and the Indus Valley. Wheat requires slightly less water than rice to grow with 1 kg of wheat requiring 1,000 L of water however more wheat is produced globally than rice with 791 million tonnes of wheat being produced annually compared with 518 million tonnes of rice.
Water Intensive Food Production
Dairy products, such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, as well as meat products also require a lot of water to produce. 1 kg of beef requires between 5,000 to 20,000 L of water to produce with 98% of the water used to produce pasture or feed for the cattle. Worldwide it takes more than 1,000 L of water to produce 1 L of milk. Given it takes 1 L of milk to make 100 g of cheese, the water footprint of cheese is even higher than milk at around 5,000 L of water per kilogram of cheese.
1 kg of chocolate requires around 17,000 L of water – this is due to the water required to make the raw ingredients (sugar, milk and cocoa beans) and the water required to process these raw ingredients into a finished product. Chocolate has, on average, the highest water footprint of any finished food product.
What source of water is most commonly used?
The most common water sources for water intensive crops (and agriculture in general) is rainwater/surface water and groundwater irrigation. Agriculture currently accounts for around 70% of water use worldwide and rice and wheat production currently uses around 45% of available surface water. Surface water sources are attractive to growers as they are close to where the food is produced and usually low in pollutants making them easy to use for growing crops.
However, climate change is causing rainfall patterns to shift leading to a reduced reliability of rainwater harvesting and surface water sources are becoming increasingly polluted. Groundwater sources are not immune to the effects of climate change with groundwater volumes reducing (particularly as extraction rates exceed recharge rates) and groundwater salinity is increasing (either due to a reduction in volume, seawater intrusion or water tables dissolving additional minerals).
What alternatives exist?
One solution is to stop growing water intensive crops. However, while there is still demand in the Western diet for meat and dairy and water intensive crops remain profitable, then these crops will continue to be grown. Additionally, as staple crops like rice and wheat make up the bulk of diets around the world, water use in agriculture is unlikely to significantly decrease in the future.
This leaves two main alternatives: water recycling/water conservation and additional water production.
Water recycling/water conservation
Find out more about Moerk Water’s water treatment solutions, including those that can be used to reduce the water burden on farms, by heading to our Technological Solutions page