Shrinking agriculture’s water footprint

Food and beverage companies could play a major role in helping reduce global water consumption through their supply chains, says Dutch scientist Arjen Hoekstra, founder of the Water Footprint Network.

Arjen Hoekstra

Arjen Hoekstra

Many of the biggest drains on our water supply come not from the kitchen tap but from inside the fridge of a typical home: ice cream, fresh meat and soft drinks, says Dutch scientist Arjen Hoekstra, who coined the term “water footprint” and founded the international Water Footprint Network in 2008.

The greatest use of global water resources by far originates with growing and producing food and beverages, he says: Agriculture accounts for roughly 70 percent of water consumption around the world, according to the United Nations World Water Development Report 2015.

Hoekstra, who has spent the past two decades educating consumers, businesses and government about the true impact of their water consumption, says the time has come to begin pushing for major changes in how agriculture and the food industry can use water more efficiently.

“I think we are in a very early stage of the water scarcity debate,” says Hoekstra. “People talk about it, and that’s basically it. This is all window dressing. We still really need to do something because the water footprint [the amount of water being used] is increasing.”

The fact that companies are talking about [using water more sustainably] is positive. [But] in the end, you have to recognize that talking doesn’t change the world.”
—Arjen Hoekstra

Taking steps

As the world’s population grows and more people in developing countries eat meat and dairy products that require more water to produce, water shortages could be just around the corner, contends Hoekstra. Total annual global water requirements are expected to jump from 4,500 billion cubic meters to 6,900 billion cubic meters by 2030, according to a 2009 report from the 2030 Water Resources Group. If this forecast proves true, global demand for freshwater would outstrip supply by 40 percent.

Despite the looming threat—the World Economic Forum this year cited water as the greatest worldwide risk—global beverage and food companies have been slow in curbing their water consumption, according to Hoekstra. While many are exploring the issue, none have taken significant water reduction measures yet, he says, acknowledging that it takes time for large companies to make decisions and enact change.

“The fact that companies are talking about it is positive,” says Hoekstra, a professor of water management at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. “[But] in the end, you have to recognize that talking doesn’t change the world.”

Leaks in the supply chain

Some major food companies, such as Nestle, PepsiCo, Kellogg and Coca-Cola, have already introduced measures to use water more effectively within their global operations. But these operations represent just a small fraction of a company’s overall water consumption, says Hoekstra. The real drain on water resources lies within the food and beverage industry supply chain—in the farms where they source raw materials for their products.

The largest water footprint of a beverage company, for example, is not bottled water. Instead, it can be traced to the main agricultural ingredients used in flavored drinks, such as sugar, oranges or barley, according to Hoekstra.

“If you have something else [as an ingredient], it always has a bigger footprint than just water,” Hoekstra explains.

Food companies that produce dairy products have an even larger water footprint: The footprint for milk, for example, is three times that of vegetables, largely because of the amount of water needed to produce food for the dairy cows, according to Hoekstra’s research. The biggest water user in terms of agricultural products, however, is beef, which has a water footprint 48 times as big as that of vegetables.

Setting goals with suppliers

Hoekstra advocates for large food and beverage companies to set targets for water usage levels with their suppliers and agricultural producers, since effective solutions are already available to reduce water consumption in agriculture. But few have done so to date, he says. A newly released report from Ceres, a Boston, Mass.-based nonprofit that advocates for sustainability leadership, revealed that 60 percent of the 37 major food companies surveyed don’t evaluate water risks in their agricultural supply chains. Eighty-nine percent have not set goals to source all major crops using responsible water practices, or given farmers financial aid so they can grow their crops using more sustainable water practices, according to the report.

“Farmers are often not capable of making those investments [in sustainable water practices],” Hoekstra says, citing competition and low prices. He encourages food companies to help the farmers make those investments, adding that “we know what is good practice and what are reasonable water footprints in agriculture.” Different irrigation strategies and techniques, for example, would have a big impact on the amount of water consumed by farms. A typical strategy—full irrigation—results in more water being used than necessary to produce the highest yield. Hoekstra believes a better alternative can be found in deficit irrigation, which can save “very substantial volumes of water” compared with full irrigation.

And initial efforts are being made within the food and beverage industry. Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg and Unilever, for example, have all adopted targeted goals to buy the majority of their agricultural inputs from farmers using responsible water practices, reports Ceres. In addition, Unilever and General Mills, along with Keurig Green Mountain and WhiteWave Foods, are now providing financial help for their farmers to incorporate sustainable water practices, such as premiums for more sustainably grown inputs and favorable financing terms for equipment, according to Ceres.

Working together

Governments also have a role to play in addressing food industry water use, says Hoekstra, who founded the Water Footprint Network as a way to work with governments and companies to encourage sustainable water consumption. For example, governments could establish benchmarks for water use for different products, he says: “This enables companies to set targets to reduce the water footprints of their products down to the benchmark.”

Indirect taxes could be another solution, says Hoekstra. A meat tax, say, would address the significant energy and water resources used in cattle farming and meat production. This in turn could help change consumption patterns, encouraging consumers to eat more vegetables and fruit and less meat and dairy. And that, says Hoekstra, could make a much larger impact on overall water consumption than taking shorter showers.

“If you stop eating meat and replace it with equivalent crop products, [an individual] saves about 800 liters of water per day,” says Hoekstra, while cutting out a shower saves just 50 liters of water.

To calculate your own personal water footprint, click here.

Catherine McLean

Catherine McLean is a freelance writer based in Switzerland. She covers a wide range of topics for both Swiss and international media outlets. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Today’s Parent, and Swissinfo among other publications.

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