The real cost of a bag of salad: You pay 99p. Africa pays 50 litres of fresh water
By Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor
Published in The Independent : 29 April 2006
To you it is a bag of salad, dropped into the supermarket trolley with
the weekly groceries. But to farmers in Kenya starved of the water
extracted by large scale agriculture to grow it, it may spell
destitution. The world is running out of water and British supermarket
shoppers are contributing to global drought, according to environmental
Customers who scour the aisles for Spanish tomatoes, Egyptian potatoes
and Kenyan roses, are intensifying the worldwide shortage of our most
In Kenya, the food items grown for export include lettuce, rocket, baby
leaf salad, mangetout, peas and broccoli. Even producing a small 50g
salad bag wastes almost 50 litres of water in the countries where the
commodity is at its most precious. A mixed salad containing tomatoes,
celery and cucumber, as well as lettuce, would require more than 300
litres. Washing, processing and packaging adds to that total.
The international trade in out-of-season vegetables and flowers brings employment for some and wealth for a few.
But for those who find the water for their land has been extracted by
larger enterprises upstream, it means increasing hardship and even
permanent environmental damage.
Bruce Lankford, a senior lecturer in natural resources at the
University of East Anglia, said yesterday: "We are exporting drought.
High-value agriculture is good for the economies ofthese countries but
its impact on poverty is inequitable. In the dry season farmers
downstream [of irrigation schemes] find the river beds have dried out."
A Channel 4 film A World Without Water, to be broadcast this evening,
spells out the consequences of the growing water shortage and the
coming battles over it. Water is increasingly being seen as a tradeable
commodity and a source of profit, which is depriving the poorest of one
of the essentials of life.
As well as from Africa, many of our salads are sourced from the
drought-stricken south of Spain, where rainfall last year was the
lowest since records began. Tomato production requires desalination
plants that use large amounts of energy and have resulted in high salt
levels along the coast. The area under plastic sheeting is now so large
it can even be seen from space.
In Egypt, vegetables have become such an important export that the
government has threatened military action against any country upstream
that dams the Nile or its tributaries. Half of all cut flowers sold in
British supermarkets come from Kenya, where the volume of exports to
Britain grew 85 per cent between 2001 and 2005.
Roses and carnations are the area's speciality, but the demand for water from nearby Lake Naivasha is unsustainable.
David Harper, a biologist at the University of Leicester, who has
monitored the lake for the charity Earthwatch for 17 years, said:
"Naivasha is being sacrificed because we require too much water. Almost
everybody in Europe who has eaten Kenyan beans or Kenyan strawberries
or gazed at Kenyan roses has bought Naivasha water. It is sucking the
lake dry. It will become a turgid, smelly pond with impoverished
communities eking out a living along bare shores."
Forty years ago, the nightmare vision presented by experts such as Paul
Ehrlich, the Stanford University biologist, in his book The Population
Bomb was that the population was growing so fast the world would be
unable to feed itself. That disaster did not happen thanks to an
extraordinary increase in crop yields driven by huge investment in
irrigation schemes. But this has created a new threat.
Fred Pearce, the author of When The Rivers Run Dry, says: "Today the
world grows twice as much food as it did a generation ago but it uses
three times as much water to grow it.
"Two-thirds of all the water abstracted from the environment goes to
irrigate crops. This use of water is massively unsustainable and has
led many people to conclude that the apocalypse wasn't averted, it was
Charities warn that while past conflicts have been over oil, future
ones will erupt over water. Jacob Tompkins, the director of Waterwise,
which campaigns to reduce water use, says low-level "cold" wars over
water are already taking place. "We are mining water that will not be
replaced. That can't go on. Whether we see better management of water
depends on the decisions people make now. If we paid for the embedded
water in our food it would reduce the amount of water we used."
Shoppers could make a start by choosing "water efficient" varieties of
vegetables. Maris Piper potatoes use lots of water while Desiree are
drought resistant and can be grown without irrigation. Mr Tompkins
said: "Desiree taste just as good but the supermarkets tend not to
stock them because they say consumers don't like them. They don't give
us the choice. The best thing for consumers to do is to ask how much
water vegetables need to grow and press the supermarkets to stock