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Climate Change: How Droughts Could Affect Our Food

cracked brown drought ground

03 August 2021

When we buy food at the supermarket or order it to our table at a restaurant, we often think little of where it has all come from. However, some of our favourite foods are under threat from the ongoing climate crisis, specifically: droughts.

July 2021 saw the release of the UK State of Climate Report, on this, the lead author of the study, Mike Kendon, climate scientist, stated: “as it continues to warm we are going to see more and more extreme weather such as heatwaves and floods.” Since 1990, the UK has become 0.9°C hotter and Spring 2020 was the hottest Spring ever recorded.

With this in mind, we took a look at some of the most water-hungry foods, and those specifically affected by hot drought conditions, to find out what consumers might have to get used to as the number of people affected by drought is set to double (1).

Here’s how your food could change due to the effects of drought.

Contents:

Breakfast under drought

breakfast food, coffee and milkempty kitchenware

Drag the slider to the left or right to show the impact drought could have on your food.

  • Milk – Cow’s milk needs an average of 628 litres of water for every 1 litre of milk produced (2), oat milk or soy milk would be likely replacements due to their vastly lower land and water usage.
  • Eggs – One box of 12 eggs would take 2,352 litres of water to produce (3), it is imagined egg production would be vastly reduced due to this.
  • Bacon – 1kg of pork uses approximately 5,988 litres of water (3), behind sheep and cow meat, it is very water-intensive therefore would be reduced for alternatives.
  • Bread and butter – As wheat for bread is on drought-prone soil in the UK, there would be an estimated 30% reduction in yield (4), while butter is high in water usage in the same way milk is, with 1kg taking 5,553 litres of water to produce (3).
  • Coffee – Drought affects coffee growing areas where there is no irrigation, an 80% reduction is understood to be a worst case drought scenario. (5) Furthermore, one study shows that 1kg of roasted coffee beans takes approximately 21,000 litres of water to make. (20)
  • Avocado on toast – 2,000 litres of water is required for every 1kg of avocados, as far as fruit goes, avocados would be removed from plates quickly. (6)

Dinner under drought

steak dinner with beer and olivesplate with few chips

Drag the slider to the left or right to show the impact drought could have on your food.

  • Beef – 1kg of beef requires 15,415 litres of water (3), the most of any meat. In addition, cereals used for animal feed are the most severely affected crop in the EU due to drought (7).
  • Peppercorn sauce – Due to the water demands of dairy products, cream would be heavily limited, or non-dairy alternatives would be used more.
  • Chips – These classic steak accompaniments currently suffer 20% reductions in European periods of drought-like weather (8), however other projections show an estimated 60% loss in potato yields in severe water-loss conditions (9).
  • Beer – Labelled as a ‘luxury essential’, studies estimate at least a 20% global loss of barley used to make beers, with studies suggesting the UK and ROI could face a 193% increase in price too (10).
  • Salad – 1kg of sweetcorn requires 900 litres of water (6), 1kg of olives uses around 3,025 litres of water (3), cucumbers would also be much tougher to grow with yields reducing by at least 52% in drought conditions (11).

Dessert under drought

ice cream, cake and wineno food, little wine

Drag the slider to the left or right to show the impact drought could have on your food.

  • Chocolate – 1kg of chocolate takes 17,196 litres of water to produce (3), that’s over 2,500 litres more than 1kg of beef. One study predicts a global decrease in cocoa of 89% due to drought (12).
  • Wine – A 2012 study revealed that many wine-making regions of France were suffering a 30-50% yield loss due to current drought conditions, in the future this could easily get far worse. (13)
  • Ice cream – Due to dairy’s huge need for water, traditional ice cream as it is now would likely be reduced and replaced by non-dairy alternatives which consume less water.
  • Cake – As mentioned, eggs would be harder to buy, and sugar yields would reduce dramatically (14), currently droughts contribute to a 20% decrease in wheat (15) (used for flour) too, so that would only be exacerbated in the years to come.

How much water do products use? 

Based on various studies and research papers (listed below), the following are some of the high water usage products that were referenced in the above visualisations.

Food alternatives under drought conditions

While these visuals and studies highlight what might be missing from our plates, there may be a push for us to eat more foods that are drought-resistant or drought-tolerant. Research suggests the following are some examples that would be better for lowering water consumption:

  • Turnips – root vegetables grow well in the UK especially (16)
  • Parsnips – like turnips, parsnips don’t require imports for UK food (16)
  • Oats and oat milk – oat milk needs 580 litres of water less than cows milk (17, 2)
  • Rhubarb – the plant fares better in heat than other plants and requires much less water (18)
  • Beetroot – warmer temperatures will likely increase the yield of beetroot (19)

Current research also cannot predict every change that may happen. Innovations in the industry will continue to take place, such as drought-resistant crops, and lab-grown meat which may reduce water consumption for livestock. There are many possibilities, but currently, lots of British food relies heavily on high water usage.

What can we do about droughts?

Droughts are worsened and caused by climate change and extreme weather like this is only going to become more common. It’s important to remember that scenarios like these for western countries may be just the tip of the iceberg, developing nations are likely to feel the brutal effects of droughts much worse than other countries.

In July 2021, The Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Qu Dongyu, held an impassioned speech where he said: “Today, humanity faces a triple planetary crisis of biodiversity loss, climate crisis and the impact of the pandemic.” Ultimately, he pointed to one key fact that people needed to be aware of when thinking about the environment and their dinner: “To have healthy food, we need a healthy environment.”

With an unhealthy environment, fruit and vegetable crops will fail, or have much lower yields, and this may mean such nutrient-rich food is not available to all. Prices could surge and highly-processed food may be the only viable alternative. Aside from food, droughts can also affect public health through shortages of drinking water and impact on air quality as stated by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

People are urged to encourage organisations and governments to implement policies that are better for the planet to help to prevent serious future drought problems. For more information, see the UK NGO WaterWise, and the Government department ofwat.

Methodology

We reviewed scientific papers and existing research (below) that looked at foods that are, or will be heavily impacted by droughts. The research was reviewed in line with the understanding that the planet is warming and droughts will become more common and severe. Where applicable we took the estimated crop reduction percentage provided in the studies as an indicator of how much less food may be available. Where research indicated food was drought-resistant or would become more prevalent in drought conditions, we referenced these items as alternatives.

Some foods are currently, and will continue to be genetically modified to resist droughts, we did not include food items that aren’t currently changed.

Sources

  1. University of Nottingham, ‘Number of people suffering extreme droughts set to double worldwide, new climate change study shows’ (https://www.preventionweb.net/news/view/75654)
  2.  J.Poore and T. Nemecek, ‘Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers’ (https://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6392/987)
  3. Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Water in Food Production (https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2013/jan/10/how-much-water-food-production-waste#data)
  4. Adverse weather conditions for UK wheat production under climate change, Agricultural and Forest Meteorology (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168192319304782#bib0077) 
  5. Fábio M. DaMatta and José D. Cochicho Ramalho, ‘Impacts of drought and temperature stress on coffee physiology and production: a review’ (https://www.scielo.br/j/bjpp/a/bDfpJwLr4xLcznSwy4b9zkf/?lang=en&format=pdf)
  6. Water Footprint Network (https://waterfootprint.org/en/resources/waterstat/)
  7. Amélie Bottollier-Depois, ‘Europe’s heat and drought crop losses tripled in 50 years: study’ (https://phys.org/news/2021-04-europe-drought-crop-losses-tripled.html)
  8. ‘How the drought has affected potato yields and quality’ (https://www.fwi.co.uk/arable/harvest/how-the-drought-has-affected-uk-and-european-spud-yields)
  9. Ministry Of Agriculture, Food And Rural Affairs, ‘Impact of Dry Conditions on Potato Yield’ (http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/facts/dry-potatoes.htm)
  10. Decreases in global beer supply due to extreme drought and heat, Nature Plants 4 (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41477-018-0263-1
  11. Physiological analysis of drought tolerance of cucumber (Cucumis sativus) genotypes, in Indian Journal of Agricultural Sciences (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/335826591_Physiological_analysis_of_drought_tolerance_of_cucumber_Cucumis_sativus_genotypes)
  12. Climate change could threaten cocoa production: Effects of 2015-16 El Niño-related drought on cocoa agroforests in Bahia, Brazil (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0200454)
  13. Jamie Goode, ‘Viticulture: Fruity with a hint of drought’, Nature 492 (https://www.nature.com/articles/492351a)
  14. Climate Change and Sugarcane Production: Potential Impact and Mitigation Strategies, International Journal of Agronomy (https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ija/2015/547386/)
  15. Department of Plant Agriculture, University of Guelph, A Physio-Morphological Trait-Based Approach for Breeding Drought Tolerant Wheat, Plant Science (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpls.2020.00715/full)
  16. Sustainable Food Trust: Importing food and exporting drought: The hidden water in your fruit and vegetables (https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/importing-food-and-exporting-drought-the-hidden-water-in-your-fruit-and-vegetables/)
  17. Environment Agency: The impact of climate change on severe droughts (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/290832/scho1206blsm-e-e.pdf)
  18. Iowa State University, Extension and Outreach: Yard and Garden: Questions Answered about Rhubarb (https://www.extension.iastate.edu/news/yard-and-garden-questions-answered-about-rhubarb)
  19. Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) Network and Scottish Government: Agriculture and Forestry Climate Change Impacts (https://nerc.ukri.org/research/partnerships/ride/lwec/report-cards/agriculture/)
  20. Queens Mary University of London: Water footprints Global average water footprint (https://www.qmul.ac.uk/geog/media/geography/docs/teachers/Global-average-water-footprint-teachers.docx)

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