A new study has analysed the drivers of water use within the EU agricultural sector and contributes to improving our knowledge about the water footprint of food that comes to our cities. As one of the largest agricultural producers in the world, Europe is particularly affected by changes in water availability. The World Resources Institute has classified five of the EU member states at high risk of water scarcity (Portugal, Spain, Italy, Belgium and Greece) and in 2023 a new regulation on requirements for water reuse in agricultural irrigation will be brought into effect under the Water Framework Directive.
The study showed that the largest EU crop producers have increased their water use during the study period, largely due to changes in supply-chain linkages, related to production processes. However, several Mediterranean countries where water scarcity has been a longstanding problem, have decreased their water consumption by improving water intensity; through changing to crop types that requires less water or using more efficient irrigation systems. Cereal production accounted for 31% of crop water use while vegetables, fruits and nuts required 17% of total crop water use; these crop-specific results can be used to develop strategies for sustainable water use. Spain’s water-use rose by 110% during the study period due to an increase in demand from local population growth and a rise in local household income. Household wealth increases are associated with the purchase of more water-intensive food products such as beef; or water-intensive clothing, made from materials such as cotton.