Food and Virtual Water in the Great Lakes States

33 Pages Posted: 27 Aug 2014

See all articles by Melissa K. Scanlan

Melissa K. Scanlan

Vermont Law School

Jenny Kehl

University of Wisconsin; Fulbright Scholar Program

Date Written: August 26, 2014


The virtual water content of food needs to be understood and regulated, due to the vast amount of water involved in food production. Virtual water is the total amount of water used to produce a product. Such water consumption has been coined “virtual,” because the water use is hidden, embedded in the production of the product. For example, it takes approximately 119 gallons of water to produce one ear of corn. The virtual water content required to produce the corn is largely invisible to the consumer.

As water scarcity increasingly affects food security, negotiations over water rights, allocations, and exports will become more contentious. The quantification is insufficient to prevent conflict, especially in times of scarcity. Legal mechanisms must be in place to address the emerging concept of virtual water and to provide protection against inadvertently diminishing the water commons via agricultural trade.

The purpose of this Article is to illuminate discussion of virtual water in food. We focus this analysis on the Great Lakes states because this is a significant agricultural region for the United States and there is an existing legal structure in place that governs the shared use of Great Lakes waters under the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact.

This Article provides first-of-its-kind calculations of the quantity of virtual water being exported from the Great Lakes region via agriculture. These data show that the Great Lakes region is a net exporter of virtual water through its agricultural production and export. We analyze these data in light of the existing legal framework for managing the waters of the Great Lakes Basin and discuss the potential for existing laws to address the net water loss in the Great Lakes region resulting from exports of virtual water through food production. Through this analysis we identify complex, and largely unanswered, questions for policymakers, and make normative recommendations for how the law should evolve to simultaneously promote sustainable water use and food security.

Suggested Citation

Scanlan, Melissa K. and Kehl, Jenny, Food and Virtual Water in the Great Lakes States (August 26, 2014). DePaul Law Review, Vol. 63, 2014; Vermont Law School Research Paper No. 15-14. Available at SSRN:

Melissa K. Scanlan (Contact Author)

Vermont Law School ( email )

68 North Windsor Street
P.O. Box 60
South Royalton, VT 05068
United States

Jenny Kehl

University of Wisconsin ( email )

Maryland Avenue
Milwaukee, WI 53211
United States
267-882-6110 (Phone)

Fulbright Scholar Program ( email )

IIE/CIES - 1400 K Street, NW, Suite 700
Washington, DC 20005
United States

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