The water footprint of different diets within European sub-national geographical entities

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The water footprint concept has been recognized as being highly valuable for raising awareness of the large quantity of water resources required to produce the food we consume. We present, for three major European countries (the United Kingdom, France and Germany), a geographically detailed nationwide food-consumption-related water footprint, taking into account socio-economic factors of food consumption, for both existing and recommended diets (healthy diet with meat, healthy pescetarian diet and healthy vegetarian diet). Using socio-economic data, national food surveys and international food consumption and water footprint databases, we were able to refine national water footprint data to the smallest possible administrative boundaries within a country (reference period 2007–2011). We found geographical differences in water footprint values for existing diets as well as for the reduction in water footprints associated with a change to the recommended healthy diets. For all 43,786 analysed geographical entities, the water footprint decreases for a healthy diet containing meat (range 11–35%). Larger reductions are observed for the healthy pescetarian (range 33–55%) and healthy vegetarian (range 35–55%) diets. In other words, shifting to a healthy diet is not only good for human health, but also substantially reduces consumption of water resources, consistently for all geographical entities throughout the three countries. Our full results are available as a supplementary dataset. These data can be used at different governance levels in order to inform policies targeted to specific geographical entities.

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Fig. 1: The total water footprint related to food consumption.
Fig. 2: The relationship between socio-economic factors and the WF of food product groups.
Fig. 3: Reduction in the total water footprint related to food consumption for a healthy diet containing meat (HEALTHY-MEAT).
Fig. 4: Reduction in the water footprint of specific food product group consumption, for a healthy diet containing meat.
Fig. 5: Reduction in the total water footprint for a healthy pescetarian diet or a healthy vegetarian diet.

Data availability

The sources of the original data used for our analysis are listed in Methods. The data generated in this study are available in the Supplementary Information as an Excel file as well as a geodataset to link this Excel file. The geodatabase is based on original geographical boundaries, provided as open data5153. When using the data generated in our study, please refer to this paper.


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The authors thank the Max Rubner-Institut for the provision of the German National Nutrition Survey II data.

Author information

D.V., S.C., B.M.G. and G.B. designed the research. S.C. carried out the statistical analyses of the nutrition surveys. D.V. performed all other analyses. D.V. wrote the paper with help from S.C. D.V. created all the graphical material.

Correspondence to Davy Vanham.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures 1-46, Supplementary Tables 1-12, Supplementary References 1–20

Supplementary Dataset 1

Supplementary Dataset 1

Supplementary Dataset 2

Supplementary Dataset 2

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Vanham, D., Comero, S., Gawlik, B.M. et al. The water footprint of different diets within European sub-national geographical entities. Nat Sustain 1, 518–525 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41893-018-0133-x

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