Save your rivers, eat a New Zealand apple?

Most people these days are used to thinking about the “carbon footprint” of consumer goods, and know about the concept of “food miles”. But have you ever thought about the “virtual water content” of your food?

I hadn’t, so found this story in New Zealand Farmers Weekly quite fascinating. Apparently, about 6.5 litres of water is consumed to grow one braeburn apple (my favourite!) in New Zealand. That sounded like quite a lot to me, but it is apparently only one tenth the amount of water that goes into Californian apples.

The article suggests that the environmentally-aware consumers of the future will increasingly take virtual water content into account as they make their purchasing decisions, in the face of growing pressure on global water resources.

It rather cheekily suggests that New Zealand apples could be marketed in drought-prone Australia with the slogan “Save your rivers, eat a New Zealand apple”.

What do you think? Is low virtual water content a potential brand advantage for New Zealand? Anyone out there already taking water content into account in their food decisions?

25 Comments Posted

  1. Good article and an interesting point that i did not know about. Yes you should market the fact that NZ apples are grown with much less water together with any other eco friendly info.

  2. Shortly after “virtual water” was first talked about, back in early 2006

    Owen, it’s not that new a concept and your “original” theorists aren’t original. Tony Allan was the economist who first wrote about this way of analysing food imports and exports in the mid 1990s. Alan Beattie summarizes it nicely in his excellent book on world economic history “False Economy”.

    Dr Allan’s focus was in imports. Food exports and imports can be thought of as a way of exporting and importing “virtual” or “embedded” water. But he was largely pointing out that countries like Egypt that are major food importers simply lack the water to grow enough grain to feed themselves. Nor are apples a very big deal here: with a kg of rice requiring a tonne of water to produce, shipping a kg of rice means moving a “virtual” tonne of water from one country to another.

    It’s an interesting way of looking at trade.

    But I think the article on apples misses the point. Maybe consumers will worry about virtual water use, but if so they’ll be worrying about the wrong thing. For ecological footprint the important thing isn’t whether you’re shipping a tonne of “virtual” water or 10 tonnes. The important thing is whether you’re shipping more out of a given area than that area can sustain.

    As for a “noble calling” to export virtual water – that’s just wrongheaded. Using our water inefficiently (and so exporting more of it) is not noble, even though that inefficiency would mean sending more “virtual water” to parched Pakistan. We should try to reduce the amount of “virtual water” we export and at that same time increase the amount of food we send. Efficiency is a virtue – an economic virtue, and a green virtue.

    Nor is this an idle point: we both know that water for farmers is not priced to encourage efficient use of it..

    I think some people are taking the interesting metaphor of virtual water and interpreting it a bit too literally.

  3. ‘fly-

    thanks for the link, looks like a great community festival lining up there.
    I’m a big fan of heritage strains, but currently only growing trials on a quarter-acre urban section, so will have to be conservative about how much space to plant up.
    Current discussion in the flat is about what to plant for next summer!
    I don’t read NZ Gardener much, more of an Organic NZ follower, but I may look up an issue to track down that berry nice article 😉

    FWIW, I’ve been using french marigolds intercropped with a variety of plants this season, which has worked well on the caterpillars.
    Think I’ll be setting up twice as many seedling trays next spring, as they’ve been very effective. Maybe with a few pyrethrum daisies added for good measure….

  4. Tomfarmer – there’s every flavour and texture amongst those I listed (and the list goes on!) I post a description of types and their qualities once my present obligations are discharged.
    Codlin and codling are, thankfully, different things! We are blessed by the absence of codling moth down here – no grubs in our apples! Joy!

    jimmy – similarly, we don’t suffer from bronze beetle, so I’m not up on their management. Our orchard was rated 10 out of a possible 10 for biodiversity when we applied for certification (highest ever given, we were told) and seems to manage most of its pest issues as a matter of course (not withstanding birds!!!)
    I have cabbage trees amongst my apple trees for the starlings to nest in and feed their yunkers with any caterpillar/grub they can find. They seem really busy.

  5. Just wondering greenfly……do you have any ideas on minimising the damage from bronze beetle to organic apples?
    Damage occurs October through to December around the stem and although the apple will heal itself, deep holes make the fruit unsuitable for export.
    Any thoughts?

  6. re those varieties of yours, G/F, do they steam well.. take a golden hue with the chrystals I mentioned and
    sweetten sours.. which are usually early crop.?

    Owen, that was long.. I read for some mention of whether the virtual aspect of apples might be used to styrengthen the kiwi case against what I still believe is the aussie-asserted firebright (?) blight. But.. didn’t see it.. disappointing..

    2006 you say, for this body to come to grips with kiwi virtuals. Heck, I can recall multiple others, admittedly for others, quaffing this sort of stuff mid-to-late-1990s. Wonder what happened to it.. ?

    ps: arab biz could well be here and now in kiwiland for selfsame reasons… hah.. anyone for adding more manapouri to the national jewellery.?

  7. And you can’t find a decent Ballarat any more either – or a Northern Spy!

    Owen, re plenitude of water – well, mostly (very dry up here this summer/autumn) and you did say sustainably – but I would add for appropriate use (dairying in Canterbury is not) and unpolluted. WE might be lucky, but we still shouldn’t be profligate – nothing to do with Chinese orphans, but everything to do with prudence.

  8. tomfarmer – can’t fault Frog’s taste really, it’s just that there’s more to an apple than … taste. Robustness and suitability for organic management is high on my list, as are the proven health benefits of some of the old varieties, along with connections to history and nostalgia, genetic variation and diversity of form, colour taste and name – the names!
    Slack m’Girdle, Tom Putt, Golden Delicious, Golden Hornet, Woster Permain, Keswick Codlin,Cornish Aromatic, Golden Pippin, Fairbelle, Blenheim Orange, Sunset list goes on …

    ..and the ciders .. lordy!

  9. Shortly after “virtual water” was first talked about, back in early 2006 the Centre presented a background paper on agriculture and the threats to its viability in New Zealand to the New Zealand Institute of Primary Industries Management and Rural Valuers Annual Conference (Energy and Water) at Te Papa, Wellington.

    At that time the news about the connection between virtual water issues and the New Zealand economy was all good, as pointed out about a third of the way through the paper, under the heading “the Third Level of Efficiency – Trade in Virtual Water” as follows:
    “There have been many claims that nations in such water deficient parts of the world may soon be going to war over water. About 65 percent of the rivers of the Arab world emanate from outside the region and the water issue has become highly politicized. It would seem that one way for New Zealanders to help such nations avert catastrophic warfare would be to keep exporting virtual water in the form of our meat, wool, lamb, paper and timber, or indeed any product or commodity that transports our plentiful water as trade-borne “virtual water”.”

    However, before the primary sector of the New Zealand economy can deal rationally with this third level of efficiency in water management, our policy advisers and our government, will have to choose between two competing views of agriculture, and farming in particular, within our economy.
    · One view holds that our primary sector is a great achievement which has proven its adaptability and efficiency in continuing to export food and ‘virtual water’ to the rest of the world, while underpinning much of the general economic wellbeing enjoyed by all New Zealanders.
    · The second view holds that our primary sector is unsustainable and inequitable and generates wealth for New Zealanders only by unfairly consuming the resources of other less fortunate people whom we help to keep poor. Remarkably, this view is gaining ground, and actually won specific financial support in recent budget rounds.

    Just in case you had any doubts, I reject this second view entirely.

    Much of the rest of the paper warned that the second view was being actively promoted by government agencies and the former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment who writes:

    “On a global scale, the ecological footprint for each New Zealander is very large. It is much bigger than the footprints of most other developed countries. The size of this footprint is unsustainable and New Zealanders are consuming more than their fair share of global resources.”

    Did the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and the Government of the day really want to teach our children that New Zealand farmers should not use our own water because there is a water shortage in Pakistan? I am reminded of those parents who told their children to stop playing with the food on their plate because of the starving children in China.

    The original virtual water theorists pointed out that New Zealand could subtract its exported virtual water from our ecological footprint and hence the more we exported the better.

    But then, only three years later, Dr Brent Clothier, an environmental scientist with Plant & Food Research, has written a paper Emerging Issues – Virtual Water, which unfortunately seems to have generated much panic among those who assume that when we use virtual water in New Zealand we somehow destroy it and make it unavailable to others. Our mainstream media have rushed to burden us with further guilt.

    Summary and Conclusion
    · New Zealand has plenty of water.
    · New Zealand is blessed with a plentiful supply of fresh water. In terms of water availability per head we are truly the world’s “lucky country”.
    · Unfortunately many nations are not so lucky and they are desperately short of reliable clean fresh water. Droughts bring mass starvation on a regular basis. These nations need to use what water they do have for their domestic supplies and to support development of job creating commerce and industry.
    · We should export as much virtual water as we can
    · Far from being an unfair consumer of the world’s water we have a duty to use as much of our water as we can, in an efficient and sustainable manner, so that our primary producers can export our “virtual water” to these nations in the form of food, timber and paper, and other water intensive goods.
    · By virtue of our net exporting of virtual water on this scale we may even reduce international tensions in the water scarce regions of the world, and reduce the risk and incidence of catastrophic war.
    · That is surely a noble calling. If we want to pass on some messages to our children this is surely one we can be proud of.
    · We should be giving positive factual messages to our children
    · We should not be filling our children’s minds with messages of doom and guilt, especially when those messages are based on pseudo-science and bad economics.

    Read the whole paper here. Or copy and paste the URL:

  10. So what are the heritage varieties.. G/F.

    for my money (so far ) frog has good taste. A steamed braeburn sours soaked in a spoonful brown crystal sugar and served up every day not only tastes wonderful but keeps that doctor away.. mebbe a tad old-fashioned but who knows the virtual community could use old-fashioned now and again 🙂

  11. katie – have you seen the ‘collectors edition’ on berries published just recently by NZ Gardener magazine?

    It’s good 🙂

  12. StephenR – I guess so, but maybe you don’t know what you’re missing;

    Kentish Fillbasket, Irish peach, Gloria Mundi, Peasegood Nonsuch, Rome Beauty, Cleopatra, Yellow Ingestra, Black Prince, Merton Russet and a hundred other fabulous, tasty, zingy traditional apple varieties would sway your opinion, should they appear in your fruit basket. Those are what I eat and I’d be loathe to go ‘back’ to the moderns: Pacific Rose, Fuji etc.

  13. Had my first go at watching organic apples and pears grow this summer.
    Cooked some of the pears last night for dessert. (old-school style: with chocolate sauce…)
    They may not have been huge pears, but wow, were they tasty. Same went for the small apples from the newly established tree.

    Organic doesn’t have to mean ‘expensive’, it can also mean ‘homegrown’ and that’s a big plus if you’re also using permaculture priciples to mulch trees, provide shade for younger plants, and reduce water loss from run-off.

    When the Great Depression happened, people took on board the value of growing their own food, and New Zealand backyards were full of home-grown fruit and veggies for decades afterwards.

    Transition Towns groups are facilitating neighbourhood ‘re-learning’ of those practices our grandparents (or great-grandparents, for the young’uns) took for granted as measures to make their lives sustainable in times of fluctuating employment.
    Good article on it here:

  14. Hmm what about organic braeburn? Spent a summer on an organic orchard a few years ago, damn good apples. Might’ve been some royal gala too.

  15. Frog! Braeburn? Nooooo…..

    Think heirloom
    Think organic

    We’ve hundreds of traditionally-grown apples in New Zealand, side-lined by the synthetic management industry and ousted from the supermarkets by people’s desire for waxed, perfect pretend fruits.

    Get back to the roots of the apple.

    Eat and grow heritage varieties.

    * rant ends here

  16. You should read the report released last year by the Royal Society, as a starter. And then understand the differences between carbon and water footprints: carbon is emitted into a common pool; water is taken from local pools. It’s not the volume of virtual water that matters for sustainability, but how fast that volume is replenished by the local hydrology – i.e,, how sustainable that resource use is.

  17. Hmm, I dunno. NZ’s water resource are already in a dire situation, see the recent North and South article, “Cry Me A River.”

    Do we really want to market something that will require more irrigation? Don’t think so…

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