Summary: Agriculture is the biggest consumer of freshwater - in fact almost 3/4 of total freshwater withdrawal. Different food products consume different amounts of water, but there are some nuances to consider.
Why this is important: Understanding the resources consumed in producing the food we eat can help with both shifts in how we produce, but also what we choose to eat. These decisions, in turn, can have important impacts on biodiversity, climate change and our health.
The big theme: Water is the critical resource to sustain life on this planet. It is essential for our bodies and those of the other living species on the planet as well as being an important resource in industry. Its availability, especially in potable form, is a macro risk factor as well as being an opportunity for innovation that investors can drive.
Agriculture (and its sibling, aquaculture) sit at the intersection of a number of UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). As one reads through the list of goals they are either directly relevant (for example goal 2: zero hunger or goal 3: good health and well-being) or have a causal relationship (for example, education improving with better nutrition and less pollution). Reforming agriculture is a big deal, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, environmental impact, food security, rural society and water use. But it’s going to require massive social and economic change and disruption, to production methods, to supply chains and to employment. It’s not clear that the political will to change fast enough really exists, which could mean faster and more dramatic change needs to come in the future.
How big a consumer of water is agriculture?
Agriculture is by far and away the biggest consumer of freshwater at almost 3/4 of total withdrawals. Industrial uses are the next biggest, using water for fabricating, processing, washing, diluting, cooling, or transporting a product. Water for domestic uses include drinking water and supply for public services, homes and commercial establishments.