Meat-hungry Hongkongers told to curb appetite to address ballooning ‘water footprint’
Adopting healthier diet could slash city’s global water consumption impact by 40 per cent, EU study finds
Hong Kong – one of Asia’s biggest per capita users of fresh water – could slash its “water footprint” by 40 per cent simply through healthier diets with less meat and sugar, a new study has found.
Eating more in line with national recommended guidelines would benefit public health while alleviating global pressure on fresh water and food security, given that over 90 per cent of the city’s food is imported, the researchers contend.
“The food consumption behaviour of Hong Kong is very different from that of the average mainland Chinese,” said Davy Vanham of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, the lead author of the study.
“Hong Kong people live in a heavily urbanised environment. People are on average richer and eat more Western diets, which contain more meat, livestock products, fats, fish, sugar and processed foods.”
The city’s direct water use from the taps is now about 326 litres per capita per day. However, if indirect water use related to food consumption is accounted for, the entire water footprint balloons to 4,727 litres per capita per day, the study found.
“Meat requires lots of resources and water to produce and that’s why the water footprint is very high,” Vanham said.
The average Hongkonger indulges in about 102.7kg of pork, beef, poultry and other meat every year, which is one of the highest per capita intakes in the world – higher than Europe and the United States, according to the authors, who analysed local and UN Food and Agriculture Organisation data.
The Chinese Nutrition Society’s recommended healthy meat intake for the average adult is just 27.4kg per capita per year.
Vanham said that if Hongkongers lowered their meat consumption to this recommended level, the city could reduce its water footprint by 40 per cent to 2,852 litres per capita per day.
Adopting a pesco-vegetarian diet – fish and veg – would achieve a reduction of 49 per cent and a pure vegetarian diet would attain 53 per cent.
Vanham stressed that a lot of Hong Kong’s food was imported from other countries that face “blue water” stress or scarcity, including parts of mainland China and the US.
The study was published recently in the peer-reviewed Journal of Hydrology. It is the first detailed water footprint assessment for a mega city.
Vanham said the point was “not to force anyone to go vegetarian” but to think about how one’s diet and lifestyle relate to responsible use of natural resources.
“It can be a win-win situation. Shifting to a healthy diet is good for you; you can do something for the environment, and in a global context it is even better for food security,” he said. “Very soon certain regions may have to … stop exporting products because they don’t have enough water.”
Agriculture accounts for an estimated 70 per cent of global water withdrawals, a figure which has been growing at almost twice the rate of the global population increase in the last century, according to the UN. A 50 per cent surge in food demand is expected by 2050.
Yet two-thirds of the world’s population are already living in areas that experience water scarcity for at least one month a year.