The challenge of cutting water consumption, “the next big issue after carbon reduction”, has been overlooked for too long, said John Giles, chair of the CIM’s food, drink and agriculture group.
“There is increasing evidence of the importance of water sustainability for food and drink businesses,” said Giles. “It is a big problem that has to be tackled over the next few years.” Globally, only 3% of available water is fresh and we have access to only 1%, according to CIM.
Giles said arguments about water supply are already causing problems for food and drink manufacturers in the US. For example, campaign groups have prevented the opening of water bottling plants on environmental grounds.
“It is not an issue that is going to go away,” said Giles. “It is not something you can fix and leave. It will be an ongoing problem into the future. The first step is recognising it is an important issue. As an issue, it hasn’t moved a great deal in the past 15 years."
Manufacturers should monitor water use and raise awareness among consumers, he said. Available now are efficient technologies to help manufacturers follow good practices such as treating water and reusing it. But the challenge is to persuade manufacturers to start using them, said Giles.
This is particularly hard in the UK where water shortages are not seen as a big problem, he added. But areas such as Africa, the Middle East and even developed areas, such as parts of California, have been dealing with water shortages for years.
Giles praised initiatitives such as the first “water footprint” label being added to food and beverage products in Scandinavia.
Meanwhile, earlier this month, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) reported that UK food and drink firms continue to make considerable water savings.
Last year, the 59 firms participating in the Federation House Commitment (FHC) to cut water use slashed consumption by 1.3Mm3 a year compared with 2007 – a reduction of 5.3%.
The FHC, now managed by the government-funded Waste & Resources Action Programme, was launched by the FDF in 2008.
Andrew Kuyk, FDF director of sustainability and competitiveness, said: “The FHC is a core part of FDF’s Five-fold Environmental Ambition. The excellent 2010 result is an important milestone in our aim to achieve a significant reduction in water use to help reduce stress on the nation's water supplies and to contribute to the industry-wide target to reduce water use by 20% by 2020 compared with 2007.”
The FHC now offers one-to-one direct on-site support and new technical working groups, he said.
“We look forward to the continued success of the FHC and hope that more companies will come to see the real benefits of participation and seek to join this successful programme, Kuyk added.