Unsustainable use of water presents huge risks to food and drink supply chains yet many businesses are too preoccupied with carbon and waste to notice. Nick Hughes reports.
Forget oil: water is the essential element that powers global food and drink production.
Not that you’d know it from the carefree way in which most businesses consume this increasingly scarce resource. In a recently published progress report for its water roadmap – a key strand of the Courtauld Commitment 2030 – Wrap revealed that just 60 businesses, including a mere six from the hospitality and foodservice (HaFS) sector, have committed to measure water risk in their operations and supply chains, identify hot spots, set water-related targets and report on progress, as is required of roadmap signatories.
Compare this figure with the 351 businesses (46 from HaFS) signed up to the charity’s food waste reduction roadmapand you get a sense for the chasm in industry engagement between these two critical sustainability issues.
On publishing its progress report in October, Wrap said there was an urgent need for more food and drink businesses to map their supply chains, which in turn will enable better tracking of progress towards the overarching target that 50% of the UK’s fresh food is sourced from areas with sustainable water management by 2030.
So why does business engagement with water security remain so patchy? And why should companies take heed of Wrap’s urgent call to take action?
“We are draining humanity’s lifeblood through vampiric overconsumption and unsustainable use, and evaporating it through global heating.” The quote, attributed to UN secretary-general António Guterres and referenced in a major new WWF report on water, speaks to the unvirtuous circle that has developed whereby water extraction supports a consumerist culture that drives climate change, which in turn drives water-related crises.
Water is the primary channel through which most of the world experiences climate change in the form of devastating floods and severe droughts; yet in the report titled ‘High cost of cheap water’, WWF argues that there has been persistent neglect of the national and global significance of freshwater ecosystems by businesses, governments and even individuals. It says this “water blindness” has come at an immense cost as the world faces a “pervasive and worsening water crisis that is undermining human and planetary health. Billions of people still lack access to safe water and sanitation, food insecurity is rising, water risks to agriculture and industry are escalating, and we are losing freshwater species and ecosystems at alarming rates.”
Unlike oil, which can be substituted for alternative fuels, water is fundamental to the act of producing food and moving it around the world. WWF says more than one-third of the world’s food production directly depends on rivers alone through their role in sustaining freshwater fisheries and irrigating cropland. The Mekong Delta, for example, contributes half of Vietnam’s rice production and 95% of its rice exports.
These kinds of freshwater ecosystems are increasingly under threat from unsustainable extraction for agriculture, human alterations to river flows, water pollution through agricultural run-off, and industrial effluent and sewage.
Rain-fed agriculture has become challenged too as rainfall patterns become more erratic under climate change. WWF cites findings by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) that 10% of the world’s rain-fed cropland is subject to frequent drought along with 14% of the world’s pastureland.
Overall, half of the world’s population is currently exposed to water scarcity at least once per month, while 55 million people are affected by droughts annually.
Ask food businesses about the work they are doing on water sustainability and the conversation will invariably begin with their own direct water use – turning off taps, fixing leaks and generally encouraging efficient behaviours. For many, this is also where the conversation currently ends.
Minimising direct water use is important, yet in relative terms, as with scope 3 carbon emissions, its environmental impact is dwarfed by the impact of water embedded in food and drink supply chains. “That is hard to navigate especially for businesses who are far removed from the origins of their supply chains,” says Rowen West-Henzell, senior sector specialist for water at Wrap.
A key starting point for businesses is to conduct a water risk assessment of their own supply chain, without which “it is very difficult to understand what your exposure is”, says West-Henzell. Free tools have been developed by organisations including WWF to help companies do just that; yet even among signatories to the Courtauld Commitment and water roadmap just 56% have carried out a water risk assessment and 50% have set water-related targets.
A lack of urgency to tackle water risk may seem perplexing given how access to water underpins food and drink production, but West-Henzell suggests there are reasons why the issue has failed to fully resonate with businesses. “In boardrooms, carbon is still very much on the agenda whereas water just doesn’t hold the same space,” she explains. “It’s yet to move from being a ‘nice to have’ sustainability issue into a critical business risk.”
Businesses need to know where their food is coming from, ideally down to farm level, in order to map their water risk, but this is not always a straightforward exercise for those at the end of long, complex supply chains. This perhaps helps explain why an attitude of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ persists for many businesses. “Water is seen as a never ending, cheap resource, but we know that’s not necessarily the case,” notes West-Henzell.
Age-old competitive rivalries come into play as well. Water is a shared resource meaning that other businesses will benefit if a company chooses to invest in stewardship of a key river catchment. Moreover, the commercial benefits of action on water risk are far less tangible than those achievable through, for example, waste reduction.
Positive impact is also harder to measure versus the volume of food waste saved or carbon emissions reduced. “You can look at it in terms of litres saved, but that’s really only one little part of the picture,” says West-Henzell. “The water quality and ecological status of a whole catchment are the sorts of things we need to look at but they are harder to quantify.”
Pockets of progress
There are emerging pockets of progress within the HaFS sector. Of the six businesses that have signed up to the water roadmap, three are contract caterers in the shape of Compass, Sodexo and CH&Co (the other three are Pizza Hut, Bidfood and Castell Howell). Compass UK & Ireland recently agreed to co-fund, along with retailers and suppliers, one of Wrap’s collective action projects on water stewardship. Based in East Anglia, a key sourcing area for some of Compass’s suppliers, and led by the Norfolk Rivers Trust, the project will work with pig and poultry farmers and the local horticulture sector to deliver practical on-farm measures that improve water retention, reduce runoff, protect soils, enhance biodiversity and improve the resilience of the surrounding water environment.
CH&Co has agreed to co-fund another collective action project in Southern Spain where over half of water bodies do not meet ‘good’ ecological status as defined by the EU. The caterer has begun the process of mapping how much of its farm level supply is located in areas considered at high risk of water stress. “We’re at the start of our data journey and it’s by no means perfect yet,” says head of sustainability Clare Clark. “When it will start to get really interesting is when we can consistently track purchasing to the farm level and from there we can work out what proportion of that supply is at high risk.” She adds that CH&Co was motivated to co-fund the project in Spain, from where some of its fresh produce is sourced, “to show that we are active in this space because water is a really important issue”.
For those yet to take action on water the risks are both material and reputational. Food and drink businesses share their water needs with communities and wildlife, and risk being publicly exposed when their supply chains are linked to practices that negatively affect local resources. Retailers such as Tesco have so far faced the greatest scrutiny over pollution of rivers such as the Wye where a huge increase in nearby intensive poultry production has been linked to excess phosphorus leaching into waterways. Yet many foodservice brands will also source chicken from this key producing region and cannot expect to escape public scrutiny forever.
More materially, climate change will continue to heap pressure on farmers both at home and abroad as unpredictable weather patterns, and the disruption caused both by water scarcity and flooding, impact on yields. It is fanciful to think that the shortages in fresh produce seen earlier this year on supermarket shelves will prove to be a one off.
In this context, security of future supply should be a serious commercial concern for the food and drink sector, and for all of us – as West-Henzell says, “without water, you have no food”. Wherever businesses sit within the supply chain they need to become more resilient to water risk. As things stand, many businesses face being submerged beneath the coming waves of water-related pressures.