Water is food? Food is energy?

Student Work
Screenshot from http://www.angelamorelli.com/water/  This post is not about an awareness campaign but on some infographics that aim at making alimentary diets’s environmental footprint more visible. An infographic is a visual explanation of complex information and data intended to make them more easily understandable, following a particular analytical approach, and often on the basis of cognitive elements.

The concept of “ecological footprint” was first coined by the Canadian researcher William Rees in 1992. It can be simply defined as the human impact on the environment. In this way, following his environmental consciousness, a normal individual in an industrialist society may adopt various behaviours so as to reduce his ecological footprint. Apart of transportation and energy issues, a daily choice for everybody is the one of food. Indeed, a particular diet may have consequences for your body, but also for the environment, following how the food was produced.

An Italian graphic artist, Angela Morelli, hence suggests that “you eat 3496 litres of water everyday” (as far as you is a meat-eater). She interestingly presents the implications of a daily meat diet in terms of water consumption. Indeed, if water for domestic consumption is visible, there would however be two invisible additional parts in our daily water consumption. First, the water used for industrial products, such as paper, cotton and clothes. Second, and by far the most important, the water to product the food we consume, which would amount to 3496 litres. “92% of the water we use is invisible and is hidden in our food!” Following this concept, referred to as “virtual water” by the British geographer Anthony Allan, it would take 15,400 litres to produce 1 kg of beefsteak – including water for the production of grains and roughages, the water for the animal to drink along its three years of industrial life, and the water for servicing the farmhouse and for slaughtering. To make this more visually striking, Angela Morelli has decided to represent this 15,400 litres of water hidden in a 1kg steak by a wall of as much (plastic) bottles – covering in the end 8 by 40 metres.

So to make the world more water secure, Angella Morelli suggests – if your are not already vegetarian (or vegan) by political conviction – to start with “one meat-free-day a week!”. Indeed, the average daily water consumption of a meat-eating person would amounts to 5,000 litres, twice the average of a vegetarian. Then, a meat eater should choose “meat raised on grass”, like sympathetic sheep, not “corn-fed beef” raised in the intensive agri-industry. Ultimately, you should not waste food because wasting food is also wasting water.

Of course, apart from a water footprint, our food choices – our rather our protein choices – have also a carbon footprint and an impact on climate change. The US-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) has published a meat eater’s guide online for people to assess the climate impact of their food choices. Indeed, the climate impacts of industrial meat production and consumption are multiple, in terms of greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions and harm to the environment. From digestion-generated methane (a GHG 25 times more potent than CO2) and manure (air and water pollution by animal waste) to feed production (including fertilizers, fuel, pesticides and water used for cropland) and processing (farmhouses and slaughterhouses activities), as well as transportation (of animals, supplies and retail products) and conservation (in supermarkets and at home), the production channel of industrial meat reveals not quite environmentally-friendly. Here also, CleanMetrics (the partners of EWG) has designed an interesting infographic to represent the carbon footprint of various foods compared with the distance made with a car.

This idea of ecological footprint can be related the one of entropy. Indeed, in his 2011-book, The Third Industrial Revolution (Palgrave Macmillan), Jeremy Rifkin (pp.198-203) draws a parallel between the concept of entropy (the thermodynamic transformation process by which energy is lost in the process of energy production itself) and the food chain in a complex and industrial civilisation. Describing the “energy that goes into a beefsteak” into eleven steps, he shows that the conversion process is ridiculous compared to the “expenditure of energy to grow the feed, fatten the animal, package the cuts, and send them to their final destination on the family table”, to ultimately be digested by the body and returned to the environment as waste.

So on one hand there is the energy consumption induced by the industrial processes, and on the other there is the simple “entropy bill”. The latest would account for about 18% of GHG emissions generated by cattle and livestock in general, because of nitrous oxide and methane emissions (which the global warming effect is way more important than carbon dioxide). It would be the second leading source of climate change, behind buildings and before worldwide transportation.

Jeremy Rifkin, to clarify a “fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of wealth” and to provide a larger intellectual opening, proposes to analyse GDP – generally associated with the measure of the wealth generated by a country – from a thermodynamic point of view: GDP would become a “measure of the temporary energy value embedded in the goods or services and an accumulation of entropic waste”, or a gross domestic cost. If we analyse the economic progress as an “entropy stream”, then economic growth become impossible, “since every time resources are consumed, a portion becomes unavailable for future use”.

The value of a good, and particularly food, is temporary, but its cost for environment is ever-long lasting. To conclude, we may say that infographics may simplify too much the implications of one’s food choice, even if they make it well visible. Indeed, if water is food, are we also eating carbon emissions? According to most media, and even the UN, on a long term basis, we should in fact better prepare for eating insects.