Water: you need to worry

Water stress and shortages are already impacting foodservice, from smoothies and sugar cane to chocolate bars and bottling plants. Amy Fetzer reports on a Footprint Forum designed to wring out solutions.

Sitting inside Innocent’s London head office on a wet and rainy Tuesday afternoon getting ready for a Footprint Forum entitled: Water: why worry 2?, water could appear low down on the list of priorities. Yet appearances can be deceptive. When comes to natural resources, water is the elephant in the room.

Indispensable yet ignored

It is essential to life, and plays a vital part in society – from production, processing, hygiene and health to the spiritual role water plays in our cultural and emotional life. Yet as long as it is there when we need it, and it is not flooding under the door when we don’t, we give it very little thought.

This is a dangerous for all industry, but water stress, shortages and deluges are already impacting on foodservice. Food has a massive water footprint. Irrigation for agriculture (for food and animal feed) is responsible for 70% of water use. Meat is particularly water hungry – with a kilo of beef requiring 160,000 litres[1].

To tackle it, businesses and entrepreneurs must to take on the challenge, argued the Rt. Hon. Sir Desmond Swayne MP, and the pre-Brexit minster for international development (now replaced by Priti Patel), who kicked off the debate.

The leaders, such as Unilever and Innocent, have already shown that it is possible. In 2014, Unilever assessed its operations to reveal that agricultural water use makes up 15% of their footprint, with tomatoes and sugar cane the most water intensive products the company uses. By working with growers to introduce drip irrigation for thirsty crops like tomatoes, Unilever has been able to cut water use by 50%, and increase yields by 25-35%.

Water app

Innocent has had similar success. Panellist Charlotte Cawthorne, sustainability manager, Innocent drinks, explained their journey to understand the water footprint of their supply chain. Innocent knew that that strawberries are water intensive to grow and that water stress is a regional issue. This enabled them to pinpoint strawberries and southern Spain for intervention. Southwest of Seville, strawberry farming was in competition with the wildlife-rich wetland of Doñana. This was endangering millions of migratory birds and the Iberian lynx, as well as the long-term viability of the strawberry industry.

Innocent’s flagship project with strawberry farmers and the University of Cordoba has enabled water savings of up to 40%. The project started with four years of research to examine a variety of irrigation equipment and water management approaches based on the different soil types, plant varieties and climate conditions. To increase scale, the project team developed the Irri-fresa app which calculates optimum daily irrigation times for any farmer in the region.

Common resource, common challenge, common solutions

Collaboration, stressed Cawthorne, is key. Innocent buy less than 3% of strawberries from the Doñana region, but the project has managed to reach over two thirds of the cultivated area. The key was in finding the right hook to get farmers engaged.

While the pure cost of water may not be a key driver for cost saving, the project discovered that focussing on the reduced energy, fertiliser and labour costs that result from better water management was more persuasive, whilst taking farmers on tours of Doñana made their impacts personal as the farmers tended to be passionate about protecting the area.

Significant potential was also seen in being able to reduce water used through changing irrigation scheduling and management, without the need for necessarily big investments in new irrigation infrastructure.

Speaker Claire Yeates, director, Waterscan noticed the growth of collaboration in meeting common challenges with more sharing of experiences. Although she did stipulate one key caveat. As each manufacturing environment is unique, each solution must be tailored to the product and processing system. “Otherwise, you won’t get the outcomes you were expecting.”

Operational impacts

Whilst recognition is growing across industry of the need to take responsibility for supply chain impacts, operational impacts must still be addressed, even though they may be a significantly smaller part of the water footprint. These can be tackled through a combination of interventions including behaviour change; process change and the implementation of water-efficient equipment.

However, for some in foodservice, tackling operational impacts is not straightforward. Contract caterers find it hard to track usage as they are guests at client sites, as panellist Elsabe Snyman, procurement director at contract caterer Harbour & Jones, pointed out. This can also make investment in water efficiency an external negotiation, as clients may need to be persuaded to act.

Upstream battle

Getting water efficiency on the agenda can be like swimming upstream. Synman noted the perception that processes, such as cleaning, require large volumes of water to be hygienic can create barriers to water efficient innovations. And, with reputations badly damaged if reduced water use causes a safety issue, companies can be reluctant to take action.

Yeates observed that Waterscan’s quality testing of cleaning in manufacturing and hospitality found phenomenal amounts of waste. Yet the fear factor still keeps innovations in usage low profile, with clients keen to remain discreet about action to reduce water consumption because of the fear of bad press.

Dr. Peter Wareing, food safety and manufacturing excellence consultant, Leatherhead Food Research, agreed that caution was necessary, citing a case of listeria in crisps that was spread by recycled water. Yet he still stressed that more problems can be caused by the overuse of water rather than by using less.

“There is always one guy in the room who says ‘We’ve been there and done it, and it didn’t work,’ so you can encounter a lot of resistance.” explained Yeates. But, she added, it is possible to win people over. For example, just looking at usage to identify issues can save clients huge amounts of money by identifying billing errors, and these savings can then be used to fund water efficient investment.

Need for an industry standard

The lack of one accepted standard, such as a life cycle analysis (LCA), to calculate water impacts, is also a barrier, noted Inder Poonaji, director of sustainability & SHEQ, Viridor. He argued an industry standard would make impact assessments more accessible and more widely utilised. This would help smaller players for whom the cost of undertaking their own can be prohibitive.

Poonaji also argued that there is a missing link in our evaluation of water’s importance in ecosystem services, and of its intrinsic value, stressing, “water isn’t just a commodity – it can be spiritual”.

Business need to lead on water

Consumers are too confused and removed from the issue to be expected to drive the agenda. People don’t equate food with water to associate the choices they make with food with impacts up the supply chain, argued Scott McCready, chief strategy officer, Water Witness International. And governments do not have the capacity to perform water management practices so it is dangerous to assume they will, argued Cawthorne. Businesses need to get involved and take the lead, the panellists agreed.

The World Economic Forum 2015 Global Risk Report ranked water crises as the top risk to the global economy, rising from third position in 2014[2]. However, whilst scarcity is an issue, in some instances, the issue is not insufficient water, it is governance and infrastructure.

Businesses need to ensure their usage does not restrict the water available for other community needs. Businesses can also play a key role in helping to ensure vital infrastructure exists as part of their CSR agenda.

For example, in developing countries, safe, sanitised toilets can play a big part in ensuring education, health and wellbeing for local communities. This can be as simple as ensuring locals, especially women, can live and work safe in the knowledge that answering the call of nature won’t lead to exposing themselves in a vulnerable or unhygienic situation, ensuring a greater opportunities in work and education. These types of projects are easy for businesses to support, and provide excellent reputational value.

In rain-sodden UK, water scarcity can feel remote and it is easy to assume water will be there for our drinking, cleaning and manufacturing purposes the moment we need it. Yet, we must learn to change this mindset. Because it takes a lot of blue to stay green. And a lot of green to keep food on our customers’ plates.

Download Leatherhead Food Research's for Footprint Forum specially authored White Paper "Making Water Savings Safely" HERE

Watch short video of Footprint Forum: Water Why Worry HERE

  • The World’s Water (2013) Water Content of Things. Available at: http://worldwater.org/wp-content/uploads/ sites/22/2013/07/Table19.pdf (Accessed: 19 May 2016)
  • World Economic Forum (WEF) (2015) Global Risks 2015. Geneva: World Economic Forum. Available at: http:// reports.weforum.org/global-risks-2015/part-1-global-risks-2015/introduction/

 

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