What if healthy diets had a hidden cost?

Violeta Cabello & Tarik Serrano

Europe consumes around 200 million tonnes of fruits and vegetables (F&V) annually, which is about 12% of the total biomass consumed in our continent. This volume has steadily increased over the last decades, a consumption pattern that is a sign of the healthier and richer dietary habits and lifestyles of Europeans. However, these habits need to be met with increased production, which is not feasible everywhere. Contrary to other crops such as cereals or tubers, most F&V require high irrigation levels and warm weather conditions for growing. This is the reason why most of F&V production in Europe is located in Southern European countries which also tend to have conditions of lower water availability. Therefore, the increase of F&V production is usually associated with impacts in water resources availability and aquatic environments, challenging the water management in these regions.

The fact that northern European F&V consumption is to a large extent sustained by southern countries' production is nothing new. We have recently witnessed the empty sections of vegetables in UK supermarkets due to weather vagaries limiting the supply capacity of Spain. However, how much water are they saving thanks to the externalized production? Let’s look at the two major importers, UK and Germany. Whereas Germany imports only 36% of the F&V it consumes, it saves an amount of water equal to 23% of the total water used for irrigation in agriculture in the country. The UK is even more impressive: 60% of F&V consumed within the country are imported, accounting for 34% of the total water used in agriculture in the country (meaning that 12 times more water is imported virtually than used for F&V production within the country!). If these countries were to produce what they consume, they would have to either significantly increase their water availability, or take it from other uses. Both alternatives have trade-offs.

How does the picture look like in their mirror countries, the net exporters? Well, 36% of F&V production in Italy is exported and in Spain it reaches up to 52%. This trade is translated into 4,125 million cubic meters of water exported virtually from those countries, a share of 14% of the total water used for irrigation. Whereas the share might not look dramatic at the national scale, there is a sharp contrast when looking at regional differences with most production concentrated in water scarce areas. For instance, the arid province of Almeria in Spain exports virtually around 85% of the water it uses, causing a heavy impact on the already strained local aquifers.

The conundrum is that neither Northern countries can produce what they consume because of climatic constraints, nor can Southern countries maintain their production patterns if they want to manage their water resources sustainably. It is not surprising then that European policymakers face a huge challenge in harmonizing water and agricultural policies to solve this nexus problem.