Piglet drinking in a stall

Diets focused on pork and other types of meat place more stress on water resources than the plant-rich meals recommended by health authorities. Credit: Carsten Koall/Getty

Water resources

The foods that could save Europe’s water and boost Europeans’ health

A plant-rich diet has a smaller ‘water footprint’ than one based on meat feasts.

The amount of water required to produce food across large swathes of Europe could fall significantly if local people improved their diets.

Vegetarian diets, with or without seafood, require substantially less water to produce than diets containing fresh meat and meat products such as sausages. Davy Vanham and his colleagues at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy, determined the amount of water needed to produce the food and alcoholic beverages consumed in each of some 44,000 administrative districts across the United Kingdom, France and Germany.

The authors found that if people adhered to national dietary guidelines — which generally recommend balanced meals rich in fruit, vegetables and grains — each district’s dietary ‘water footprint’ would fall by 11–55%, depending on regional eating habits.

A mix of approaches, including health-information campaigns and regulatory measures, may be needed to stimulate dietary shifts beneficial for both human health and the environment, the authors say.