The global food and beverage sector is worth an incredible $6 trillion and lies at the very heart of the water crisis, with companies in the industry reliant on vast amounts of water… and, as such, they’re among the first to feel the impacts of interruptions to and the unpredictability of global water supplies.
Ceres analysis shows that the sector consumes 70 per cent of freshwater resources around the world to grow and manufacture its products, but because these resources are being depleted and polluted at increasingly alarming rates, exacerbated by the physical effects of climate change, it has now become absolutely vital for food businesses to review their water stewardship and make necessary changes with immediate effect.
What impact does the food sector have on water resources?
Agriculture is highly dependent on water and, consequently, the food sector is facing increasing risks related to water stress and scarcity, as well as pollution – but the industry also has its part to play in causing the water crisis in the first instance.
Global surface water reserves and aquifers are being drained rapidly, while in many countries around the world, pollution as a result of agriculture is the main cause of water loss and degradation.
Irrigation is the largest user of water worldwide, making up 70 per cent of water use, with aquifers depleted by intensive groundwater pumping, while pollution issues related to agriculture include fertiliser runoff, use of pesticides and effluent from livestock, all of which significantly affect waterways and groundwater.
In addition, the problem is being exacerbated by rapidly developing economies, urbanisation and population growth, all of which is driving demand for food. Western-style diets in particular are growing in popularity, diets that are high in sugar, fat and protein – all of which are costly where water for food production is concerned.
If water mismanagement continues in the global food and drink sector, repercussions could well be seen such as increased pollution, food shortages, rising food prices and social unrest… and businesses certainly have their part to play in making sure that this doesn’t happen.
How are businesses affected by the water crisis?
Water risk drivers affecting businesses in the food and drink sector include climate change, increased competition for resources, water pollution, ageing infrastructure and poor regulation.
This then leads to greater price volatility for agricultural necessities, inconsistent input or supply and potential loss of contracts. Operational risks include higher transport costs to transfer inputs over longer distances, reduced livestock or crop production and assets being affected by shifting production zones.
Companies could also find themselves faced with legal action for failing to deal with the negative environmental impacts of their business operations where water is concerned.
What can food businesses do to improve their water stewardship?
Water stewardship involves the responsible planning and management of resources, using water in an environmentally sustainable, economically beneficial and socially equitable way, typically achieved through a stakeholder inclusive process involving both site and catchment-based approaches.
This is achieved by addressing shared catchment challenges in a way that encourages businesses to move towards best practice for five outcomes: good water governance, sustainable water balance, good water equality status, important water-related areas and safe water, sanitation and hygiene for all.
Being aware of your water footprint and impact on resources is the first step towards enacting real and lasting change. You can become more resource efficient by understanding the quantity and quality of the water you and your suppliers use, what local competitors are doing and whether you can do the same, and the rules and regulations you must follow.
Local knowledge is a must, since water issues are diverse and vary around the UK. Understanding the situation in your local area, as well as that of your suppliers, will help you understand the impact you’re having and the risks you’re exposed to, as well as the opportunities that are available to you to improve your water stewardship.
Once you know what the issues you face are, you can then start to take decisive practical action. Possible steps include ensuring that you remain compliant with the rules related to the catchment or catchments in which you operate, reducing water usage and consumption, running internal awareness campaigns, investing in sustainable urban drainage and so on.
Being transparent about the risks that your business faces where water is concerned can also prove particularly beneficial, as it will help to raise awareness among other local businesses, encouraging them to take similar action as well.
What about changing business water supplier?
One way you can make an immediate impact where your water usage is concerned is to switch water supplier.
There are all sorts of benefits associated with switching, everything from enjoying cost savings thanks to better tariffs to improved customer service levels, more value-added services, wastewater and water supply consolidation across multiple sites and regions, and working with a supplier with more expertise in working with organisations in your industry.
The switching process also involves a water audit, which can reveal any discrepancies in your bills and any spikes in usage, which may be indicative of a leak on your site.
Some three billion litres of water are lost through leakage in England alone every single day, so prioritising water leak detection and repair can make a significant difference to your water footprint.
In order to be eligible to switch, you will need to operate at least one site in England or Scotland. Although, of course, you can manage the switching process yourself, it can be very daunting as there are so many retailers now on the market – and it can be especially difficult for larger multi-site organisations.