Four pints of milk for £1; a jar of instant coffee for 47 pence; a family pack of beef frying steaks for £2.28*; these are the kind of rock-bottom prices that many in the west have become accustomed to paying for household essentials. But the prices of everyday groceries like these may rise significantly as the global water crisis worsens.
When you look at a loaf of bread or a slab of beef the water content might not be the first thing that springs to mind. But these are among the most water-heavy foods and as the world's available water supply dries up, we will increasingly no longer be able to afford them.
"The era of free water is over," says Dan Crossley, executive director at the Food Ethics Council: "We're likely to have to pay more for drinking water and for the water that goes into growing and making our food. We can expect to see food prices yo-yo-ing up and down in the future, but on a general upward trend."
Water-heavy or water-rich foods are the products which demand a particularly high level of water to produce them. This water is often referred to as embedded water or virtual water. With meat, for example, it's the water that's needed for the crops, which are grown to feed the animals as well as the water involved in the process of raising and slaughtering the animals. Factory-farmed beef is an example of an incredibly water-heavy food as it takes ninety bath tubs worth of water (15,000 litres) to produce a single kilogramme.
Water availability is a major issue because of climate change (widespread floods and droughts), the global expansion of the western diet (the shift in China, for example, to eating more meat and dairy), a rising world population and our insatiable demand for bio-fuels.
As the UK imports much of its food, we're effectively importing the water it takes to grow it, says Melvyn Kay, a spokesperson for the UK Irrigation Association. He says that for example, we're buying potatoes from Egypt, grown with water from the Nile and this means we're literally importing water from the Nile, a precious resource.
He says: "In the future, it's unlikely that countries will be able to afford to export their water to us like this. But it's probably going to take price hikes in certain foods for people in the UK to realise the extent of problems with the global water situation."
Beef - a thirsty meat
Meat is generally a water-heavy food, though it depends on the circumstances - if animals are kept on the land and not intensively factory reared, it's more efficient. For factory farmed meat, however, it takes 33 bathtubs of water to produce a single kilo of pork and 24 bathtubs go into a kilo of chicken but beef tops the list: it soaks up 90 bathtubs. It's forty times more water intensive to produce factory-farm meat than it is to keep animals on the land, according to Philip Lymbery, author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat.
Lymbery says: "Cattle on pasture eats grass that's watered by rainfall. But if you take cattle off pasture and put it in enclosures and feed it human-edible crops, which demand a lot of water to produce, it's far less sustainable."
The bottom line is that over the next few years, the price of factory farmed meat may soar, says Lymbery. However, he points out that if prices of factory meat rise, there could be a drop in the price of pasture-fed, sustainable beef, as the demand for this product would rise.
Tea is a very delicate crop which is highly sensitive to water. It grows predominantly in eastern sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, which are exactly the areas where climate change is likely to hit hardest, says Simon Billing, senior sustainability adviser at Forum for the Future, who works with the multi-stakeholder project Tea 2030. "It's also a labour-intensive crop, and as people increasingly want to work in factories and in cities, this may also push up the price of tea."
While the tea industry is working on how to breed more resistant crops and cope with the water crisis, the key message is that if we want to enjoy a cuppa in the future, we need to value it now.
"The cheapest of the cheap is not sustainable when it comes to tea," says Billing: "We may think of it as an everyday product but unless we're prepared to pay a little extra and for that money to be passed along the supply chain, we risk it being a luxury product in the future."
Brazil, which produces around a third of the world's coffee, has seen its worst droughts for a decade, which was partly why the cost of coffee rose for five consecutive months until April this year. The latest figures, from the International Coffee Organisation (ICO), show a drop in price in May. It reached a high of 179 cents/lb in April and fell to a low of 153 cents by the end of May. However, the price of coffee is likely to remain volatile; despite the droughts leading to a drop in production it may be that adequate supplies in the chain mean that consumers have not yet felt the hit of a rise in coffee prices.
In April, the US department of agriculture reported that the Florida orange crop was at a 24-year low - which drove the price of orange juice to its highest level in two years. The production of oranges in Florida (the largest producers of oranges) was hit by a particularly dry growing season and the spread of a disease known as citrus greening, which also affected production in Brazil.
The result has been volatile prices for orange juice: an example of the fluctuations in price that food may experience in the future, according to Jacob Tompkins, managing director of Waterwise.
"Once prices reach a certain level as they have recently with orange juice in the States, in some cases, consumers stop buying so much of the product," says Tompkins. "Once this happens, the price has to drop to get them to buy it again, so you can be in a situation where production is bad and the price is low. It's an example of how market economics can mean that the price of groceries is all over the place."
Grain prices in the UK take their lead from the international market. There have been recent price hikes caused both by the political unrest in Ukraine and the droughts in the grain-growing belts of the US, both of which are major exporters of grain, says Jonathan Lane, trading director at Gleadell Agriculture Ltd, a grain trader. The weather in the US has now stabilised, for the time being, and predictions for the harvest are improving, and therefore, prices have significantly lowered. However, grain demand is an issue for food as well as feed for animals and there's uncertainty about how farmers can meet grain demand in the future as well as how much consumers will end up paying for a loaf. Lane says: "Prices of grain are already volatile. Fifteen years ago, they were relatively flat but now it's not unusual to see significant changes in the price due to the demand for grain, the weather and political unrest in the countries which are major exporters of grain."
"Droughts may mean these areas become unsuitable to grow grain so there'll be a shift to the land further north. There's uncertainty about how we'll meet grain demand in the future, says Tompkins.
What can you do about it?
Eating less meat is a quick way to reduce our consumption of water-heavy foods. Wasting less food is also critical: when we chuck food, we're also effectively throwing away the water that's been used to produce that food. "Throwing away food that was produced in water scarce areas is doubly wrong, as you may be depriving someone in need," says Crossley.
*These prices, found on www.mysupermarket.co.uk, were correct at the time of going to press.
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The price of food that requires heavy use of water for production may race up, particularly beef, coffee and oranges. Photograph: Andy Sacks/Stone