STOCKHOLM (AFP) — As much as half the water used to grow food worldwide is lost due to waste, experts said at a Stockholm conference that wrapped up Friday, pointing out that the squandered resources are a major contributor to global water shortages.
"There is huge waste and loss of water through food that is produced, since roughly 50 percent of the food that farmers grow is lost or wasted," said Jan Lundqvist, who heads the scientific programme at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).
"There is a need for a mentality shift... It would make a lot of sense for people to waste less," he told AFP.
According to SIWI, which hosted the annual World Water Week in the Swedish capital, tremendous amounts of food, and thus water, are discarded in the fields, during processing, in transport, in supermarkets, restaurants and in people's kitchens.
In a new report on saving water the institute points out that in the United States, 30 percent of food, worth 48.3 billion dollars (32.5 billion euros), is thrown away each year.
"That corresponds to 40 trillion litres of irrigation water, enough water to meet the household needs of 500 million people," said the report, entitled Saving Water: from Field to Fork -- Curbing Losses and Wastage in the Food Chain.
Food wastage depended largely on the society in which it was grown and consumed. In poor countries most food was lost in the fields or due to lack of storage and cooling systems or poor transport mechanisms.
"In many areas of the world you simply cannot store food efficiently, because it is not handled well," SIWI project director Jakob Granit told AFP.
In richer societies, most waste happened at the consumer level, while changing diets and an increased appetite for water-intensive foods like dairy products and meet, especially beef, in these regions amplified the water drainage, according to experts.
"In urban settings, we have lost touch with realities. People do not know where food comes from, they do not know what it takes to produce food," Lundqvist said, pointing out that it takes between 10 and 15 tonnes water to produce a single kilo (2.2 pounds) of beef.
"Now if you throw away half of that kilo, that means you've thrown away 7.5 tonnes of water," he said.
As the world struggles to feed and provide water to growing populations, it was essential that governments strived to reduce the amount of food wasted by at least 50 percent by 2025, according to the SIWI report.
"Unless we change our practices, water will be a key constraint to food production in the future," Pasquale Steduto of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's Water Resources, Development and Management Service said in a statement.
For change to happen, economic incentives were essential, according to Granit.
"The key incentive to make change is the price," he said, pointing out that in Sweden the consumption of beef had recently "gone down by 30 percent because the price went up."
And in Kuwait, where water remained a free commodity, each person on average used 600 litres of water a day, while in water-rich Sweden the average was just 150 litres, he said.
"We pay a price here for water that is not very high, but we also couple that with education and awareness so people know there is a cost to the environment to use that water," Granit said.
According to Lundqvist, today's massive food waste actually has a silver lining.
"It means there is a huge potential for improvement," he said.
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