The Insane Water Footprint Of Pasta

An Italian(’s) dilemma

Mattia Bradley
Climate Conscious
Published in
5 min readJun 6, 2021


Photo by Antonio Ristallo on Unsplash

This one is gonna be tough. As a severe pasta addict myself, writing about the unsustainability of its production is gonna make my heart skip a bit, but I knew the time would eventually come to address this heartbreaking topic. So, hold your breath, and let’s dive into it.

Quite a few years ago, when Facebook was going through its golden age and millions of millennials were posting daily the most random stuff, I came across an interesting picture: a fusillo (the well-known helix-shaped pasta) with the underneath statement “This is what Italians’ DNA looks like”. The most susceptible among us might have found it offensive, or even racist as it was (as usual) picking on the stereotype that we consume enormous amounts of pasta, on a daily basis. I personally just found it funny and thinking about it, although it was playing with a stereotype that many of us are tired of hearing, the message that it was conveying was not so far from the truth. As a matter of fact, pasta is really part of our DNA and I hardly recall a single day where I did not eat pasta of any form, and I certainly do not recall an entire pasta-free week since the time I started eating more than baby food (no, not even in Italy are we fed with lasagne at 3 years of age).

What would you eat if not pasta, anyway?

Photo by Sheila Joy on Unsplash

I often found myself thinking “What on Earth would I eat every day, if pasta didn’t exist?”. If you think about it, it’s a legitimate question. Wheat is the major staple food in Europe and Northern America and an average European consumes around 6 kg of pasta per capita per year. Average. According to Statista, in 2015, Greece consumed 11.2 kg/capita, followed by Switzerland and Germany with 9.2 and 8 kg/capita respectively.

But they are just amateurs: Italy’s yearly per capita consumption of pasta was 23.5 kg in 2015. According to the International Pasta Organization (IPO):

“about 6 Italians out of 10 of all ages and mostly living in the central-southern part of the country eat it every day”

With the nationwide lockdown imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, seems like Italians found the joy of life in cooking and eating pasta more than ever, as:

“1 in 4 people increased their consumption of pasta, choosing it as a ‘favorite dish’, good, healthy, practical and sustainable, right in the most difficult moment.”

I must admit, we have some fair competitors outside of the EU: Tunisia (17 kg) and Venezuela (12 kg). Also, the US seems to show a love for pasta. According to IPO:

“9 out of 10 Americans eats pasta every day, an incredible figure if we think that the US is the home of high-protein diets”

Although the yearly consumption per capita in the US sums up to just 9 kg.

As I said, what on Earth would you eat every day, if not pasta? Sadly, this has consequences…and not only on your love handles.

Lots of pasta means LOTS of water

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Here comes the sad truth behind the idyll of eating a perfect carbonara in front of the Colosseum: water consumption. An insane water consumption.

Durum wheat requires water and a lot of it. According to a study conducted by the University of Twente:

“the water footprint of dry pasta made in Italy amounts to 1924 litres of water per kilogram of pasta”

The impact of water footprint is also linked to the sourcing of Durum wheat and the vulnerability of the water systems: it is more severe in the South of Italy, in the regions of Sicily and Puglia, since Durum wheat’s irrigation is carried out by overexploiting the groundwater.

Now, considering how much pasta we eat per capita every year, you can do the math and calculate the pasta-related water consumption of an average Italian: 45,214 liters/year. Given that we are 60 million people, our national water consumption for pasta amounts to about 2700 million m³/year, or the equivalent water needed to fill 1 million Olympic swimming pools.

In Italy, an additional problem is that the overexploitation of the groundwater to irrigate the wheat, is having negative consequences on the hydrodynamic equilibrium of the aquifer and the water quality itself. This is often outside the control of the water administration, since a large share (1.5 million wells, in the whole country) of the water extraction is carried out illegally by private users.

Should we ban pasta over its water toll?

Photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash

The highest share of water footprint for pasta is at the cultivation stage (1,557 m³/ton). The processing itself doesn’t require as much instead (0.5 m³/ton).

However, before we environmentally consciously dump our pasta al pesto, there are some agronomic strategies which we could adopt to reduce the crops’ water footprint.

  1. Most importantly, the sourcing area should be appropriate for the plant’s water requirements: areas where the water availability is higher should be preferred over drier locations.
  2. Organic production, relying on green manure applications and mechanical cultivation, can help to reduce the evapotranspiration of water from a durum wheat cropping system.
  3. Breeding programs for durum wheat, aiming at creating varieties which are able to grow using less water could also be implemented.

Let’s not despair, the age of pasta is not over yet! (although, taking the risk of losing followers, hopefully the age of pasta with meatballs will be over!)

We do, however, need to adopt sustainable agriculture strategies to make the best use of the natural resources we have and….the most difficult thing…maybe eating pasta every other day, rather than every day.

So, what’s for lunch today? Easy-peasy: risotto!



Mattia Bradley
Climate Conscious

Agronomist and traveller. Passionate about sustainability and philosophy. Admin of blog