Save water by becoming a vegetarian!

1 JANUARY 2003

A Melbourne University academic has suggested people can increase their water savings by making more informed choices in what they eat.

A Melbourne University academic has suggested people can increase their water savings by making more informed choices in what they eat.
 
“With the drought people are very concerned about water for two reasons, one, that they will have enough water for their needs, and two, because they see saving water as environmentally a good thing to do,” said geographer Prof Ian Rutherfurd, who will be speaking at the 5th Australian Stream Management Conference in Albury tomorrow on ‘City people eat rivers: estimating the virtual water consumed by people in a large Australian city.’
 
Hosted by Charles Sturt University’s Institute for Land, Water and Society, the week long conference with 270 participants is focussing on water and river management and finishes on Friday.
 
“Often those two things get confused,” said Prof Rutherfurd. “For example if you save water in Melbourne, as a Melbourne consumer, it has no environmental consequences because all you are doing is leaving more water in the dams. This means you increase your security and have more water for consumption, which is fine, but if people are really concerned about environmental impacts of water consumption then they should be thinking more about what food they eat than  what they use water for in the home.
 
“To put that in perspective for every litre of water you use in the home for washing, the garden etc. the average person in Melbourne uses nine to 10 litres of water in the food they consume….this  embodied or virtual water is the water that has been used to make the food.”
 
Prof Rutherfurd said the condition of our streams was often seen as a rural issue.
 
“In fact, the condition of rural streams in Australia, is determined, to a large degree, by food choices made by people in cities,” he said.
“When we think about the boundary of the Murray Darling Basin for example, my view is that the boundary is the supermarket shelf, not the Great Dividing Range.
 
“Every time you make a choice whether to eat beef or kangaroo, or get milk produced from an irrigation area or a rain fed area you are actually making a decision on your water consumption.”
 
One of Prof Rutherford’s suggestions, which would help consumers make informed decisions about food, it could be labelled with a ‘5 drop system’ to indicate which foods required large amounts of water to produce.
 
He said one of the most efficient ways to reduce water consumption was to become a vegetarian.
“In gross terms if you stop eating meat, you will reduce the amount of water you consume by more than two thirds,” he said. “That’s because the main use of irrigated water in Australia is for pasture for dairy and some beef production.
 
“But if you don’t want to become a vegetarian but you can save a lot of water by choosing products that weren’t produced by irrigation. You can also substitute foods in your diet i.e. if you want protein in your diet, instead of using meat, replace it with soybean products.”
 
Prof Rutherford said, however, one of the problems with the argument was that even if people stopped eating dairy products, which use a lot of water, which would not necessarily mean the water saved would go back into the river.
 
“It would probably go into export products and that might be worse because you are combining high water production with high carbon production,” he said. 
“The key message is you need to make sure that there is some relationship between the choices people make with the food they eat and the environmental consequences of those choices…at the moment that just doesn’t exist.”
 
*Friday’s closing address by Prof Peter Cullen, commissioner with the National Water Commission, from 2.40 pm to 3pm, at the Albury Performing Arts Centre, has now been opened to the general public.
“Prof Cullen is one of Australia’s leading scientists in water and river management,” said conference co-convenor Assoc Prof Robyn Watts. “We feel it is rare opportunity for people to come along to hear what one of the big players in the field has to say.’
 
Key speakers tomorrow, Thursday, May 24:
  • Dr Jane Doolan, Department of Sustainability & Environment. ‘Setting up policy frameworks to deliver evidence-based decision making in integrated river management.’
  • Mr Matt Linnegar – Murrumbidgee Irrigation Ltd, ‘Murrumbidgee River Reach’
  • Mr Jim McDonald- Namoi Catchment Management Authority- ‘Is new policy evidence based and is it working.’

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