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Further information

Beans on toast

The Beans on Toast page is expanding. The original project funded by CREW Centre of Expertise in Waters kept Durham student Sarah Doherty occupied for four months, early in 2012. The ideas proved popular at school visits and Open Days ..... and here's progress so far.


There are two simple but effective things you can do today to use less water and to help reduce the earth’s ‘water footprint’ - eat more local food and don’t waste food.

[The photograph above right shows Jean Duncan and friends from Wormit Primary, Fife.]


Beans on toast - a liquid lunch

The story of beans on toast is one example of the way we can look at the crops and water that go to make a simple meal. By looking at what is written on the tin or package and by searching the web for information, a visiting student Sarah Doherty compiled a list of all the ingredients that went into beans, bread and spread and worked out where, and if possible how much, water was used to grow the crops and process the food.

The ingredients from more than ten crops, grown in several continents, and using in total bathfulls of water were needed to make this simple plate.

Sarah Doherty's project on the water footprint of beans on toast is being expanded and has moved to its own page on this site Beans on toast - a liquid lunch!

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Background - water and sustainable food production

Most of the food we eat comes from other parts of the world. Rice, pasta, bread, much of the food for farm animals and even food for pets and garden birds are imported. Without all this food coming into the country, we would starve, at least until we were able to find ways to grow all our food locally. In Scotland, people starved a hundred and fifty years ago when crops failed. They would starve now if not for imports.

When we import food, we are also importing water from other countries. “There’s not that much water in food” we say. “Look at dried noodles or rice - we add tap water to wet and heat them, so use far more local water than what's in the packet!” 

But that’s ignoring the water used to grow, process, transport and package the food.The water from the tap can be called ‘direct’ water, whereas all the water used to get the noodles or rice to the shelf in your cupboard is called ‘indirect’. For nearly all types of food, this indirect or hidden water is very much greater than the direct water.  Hidden water can amount to a few bathfulls – just to get a simple meal on your plate. Much of this water starts by falling as rain in other parts of the world.

The global trade in hidden water is harming many of the world’s ecosystems and its poorer people. There is not enough fresh water to go round, yet hidden water is still exported from many countries in food and other materials. 

The project on beans on toast (see below) was the first Living Field web article to look at the global water footprint. Further articles will be linked to this page in February 2013 for anyone wishing to know more about water in food production.

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Open Days 15 and 16 June 2012

Graham Begg, cell-mate of Sarah for four months, became infected with enthusiasm for the project, and offered to organise a 'beans on toast' exhibit at the Open Days this year. As things turned out, it was one of the most popular events at both the schools day and the public day.

In the background he ran a loop of Sarah's video on the beans on toast project. Then visitors were taken through a series of steps showing, first, how much water was used in the making of the meal. For example, a little bit of water is part of the meal and is actually eaten along with the beans, bread and spread. More water - about three times more - is contained in the stuff (beans, tomato, etc.) that is processed to make up the beans and juice that ends up in the tin.

Then the big surprise came - how much water is used to grow all the different ingredients, process them and get them to the factory. It's such a lot compared to the other two that it's hard to visualise - but if the water in the meal is equivalent to three ping-pong balls stacked on top of each other, and the water in the ingredients is nine or ten ping-pong balls, then the water used in growing and processing is so much that you could not get the ping pong balls into the cabin. In fact if you stacked them up one on top of another, they would reach into the clouds.

Next the visitors were taken through a series of questions on where all the nine or ten crops that go into beans on toast came from. Clues allowed them to place pictures of crops on a map of the world.

The main thing, though, is that it got people talking about the issues in question - for example, the way we use the water and other resources from different parts of the world, and the way a simple meal can in reality consist of many different crops, sourced from several continents. 

And the beans on toast story is just one part of of a much bigger question - should we in Scotland be comfortable with importing nearly all the cereal carbohydrate (bread, pasta, rice) and legume protein (beans, lentils, farm animal feed) that goes to make our present staple diet.

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Primary School art and design inspired by the beans on toast story

Sarah Doherty teamed up with artist Jean Duncan to devise a beans on toast road show for primary schools. They tried it out through two visits to Wormit Primary in Fife. The road show was based on, first, a good story that most people can relate to, second, hands on art and craft work and third, a reward in the form of a meal - yes, B on T.

The show began with a presentation on the range of crops that make up the meal and then the water and energy used in growing the crops and washing and processing the materials. 

The children were then encouraged to make life history diagrams showing how the crops were produced. Three of the charts they made are show in the panel above right. A larger file (jpeg, 435 kb) of the panel is available by clicking The story of beans on toast.

Jean also worked with the childred to produce paintings and drawings of things that interested them in the story. Here are some examples. 

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Who did what

Research and presentations - Sarah Doherty Durham University placement student. Primary school roadshow - Sarah and Jean Duncan. 

Drawings and paintings on this page - Wormit Primary School children. Original photographs of artwork - Jean Duncan and Tracey Dixon.

Open Day exhibit at the James Hutton Institute - Graham Begg and Gladys Wright.

Further material - Geoff Squire

CREW (Scottish Government) provided the funding for 4 months of Sarah's time and some time and materials for Jean. For queries on this CREW project, contact Geoff Squire.

The panel above shows paintings from the story of beans on toast.

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