Dark skies ahead

By Laurence Gibbons

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Water Anaerobic digestion Sewage treatment Wastewater

Increased food production will put water resources under increasing pressure
Increased food production will put water resources under increasing pressure
Experts are advising governments and industry to take action against an impending water crisis, reports Laurence Gibbons

Nestlé's chief executive Paul Bulcke couldn't be more clear: an impending water crisis is the biggest threat food manufacturers face today. And he has an array of statistics to argue his point.

Delivering his 'Water  ̶  the linchpin of food security' speech at the City Food Lecture in London in February, Bulcke said the demand for water is forecast to be 50% higher in 2030 than today, as the global population grows.

Increasing food production in emerging countries will result in water withdrawals exceeding natural renewal by more than 60%. This, claims Bulcke, will lead to one third of the world's population experiencing water scarcity.

Bulcke says this will cause food shortages within the next 1520 years and industry, governments and other stakeholders need to act urgently to prevent a food crisis.

Having a global food company such as Nestlé outlining water scarcity as a critical concern for food manufacturers is a sign that firms should take notice and address the issue now, claims Jane Stevensen, director of sustainability at advisory firm Grant Thornton.

Think global, act local

"Food manufacturers use vast quantities of water in producing crops and livestock, food production, cleaning and effluent  ̶  if one of the biggest manufacturers in the world is telling firms to be cautious then they must take notice."

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) is also clear that water supply will need increasing levels of attention for manufacturers in the future, even if it isn't causing tangible problems today.

"Water is fundamental for food production and, Bulcke is right, the situation will get worse,"​ says FDF director of sustainability Andrew Kuyk. "It is time to start thinking about it,"​ he adds.

So if water scarcity really is as big a risk as many believe  ̶  the World Economic Forum now identifies it as the second biggest global risk after a major financial failure  ̶  what should food and drink manufacturers do to ensure a sustainable supply of water for their businesses?

According to the experts, it is vital that food firms have water management systems in place at their sites and make good use of local schemes that help to control water usage.

"Water is a global issue, but one that can only be addressed locally. Think global, act local is what I would tell manufacturers,"​ says Stevensen. "Firms need to understand where they're wasting water  ̶  it's in the usage and effluent. They should measure what they use and understand where the loss is taking place and make the necessary changes."

On a practical level, Stevensen would like to see more firms take advantage of independent advice such as the Carbon Trust Water Standard (CTWS). The CTWS benchmarks water use and assists with efficiency plans to reduce exposure to water scarcity year on year.

Companies that have received the CTWS certification  ̶  recognising improvements in water management  ̶  include Coca-Cola Enterprises, Sainsbury and potato processor Branston.

"Water is fundamental to our business and our communities,"​ says Coca-Cola Enterprises' chief executive and chairman John Brock. "By measuring and managing our water impact within our operations as well as across our value chain, we can address longer-term scarcity."

So how are some food and drink firms managing to reduce water use, while others are yet to set sail on the journey?

As part of the FDF's five-fold environmental ambition, firms have currently reduced water wastage by 7% of the 20% target set for 2020.

Success from big players

Major food firms including United Biscuits, Kellogg, Premier Foods and Kraft Foods have had some success. Kellogg has cut consumption by 17% since 2010 by installing eight submeters at its plant in Wrexham to monitor areas of high water use. One of these meters identified that a belt washer was overusing water by 75%. United Biscuits has reduced water use by 40% as a result of employee engagement and a major investment in a water recycling plant.

"We are on track to meet our targets,"​ says Kuyk. "Progress will accelerate from now on  ̶  now that firms have gone through the stage of measuring​ [and assessing what changes they can make], they are starting to make the changes."

One factor that isn't included in the 2020 target, however, is embedded water  ̶  the amount of water actually used to produce goods.

"Embedded water is much more challenging,"​ says Kuyk. "It is not included in our target because each production uses a different amount of water. To tell every food manufacturer to reduce embedded water use by the same percentage is unrealistic as a kilogram of meat requires 16,000 litres of water to produce, whereas a potato only needs 25 litres."

While manufacturers are taking strides to reduce water use, it is clear there is still much more to do  ̶  including looking at embedded water  ̶  to avoid the bleak future suggested by Bulcke.

In addition to having sound water management plans in place to monitor and minimise water use, Kuyk urges firms to look at their supply chains and only source crops from countries that operate in a sustainable way  ̶  especially when it comes to needless irrigation.

"Manufacturers need to be sensible and not buy from an area where irrigation is being used when it is not needed,"​ Kuyk adds. "If water is being used that could be put to better use then we must not encourage irresponsibility."

When a farmer is irrigating his field in Spain only 25% of the water he uses actually hits the ground, Bulcke said in the City Food Lecture.

Kuyk would also like to see more firms follow the lead of Kellogg, which has installed a reverse osmosis plant at the end of its own waste water treatment plant to recycle water destined for the sewer.

The water produced is suitable for use in 'grey water' applications, such as wet scrubbers and cooling operations, Kuyk adds. Total water use has reduced by 50% at the Kellogg factory since 2007 as a result. Kuyk says that practices such as this enable firms to keep the best water for the best jobs and use lower quality water for other jobs.

But many manufacturers lack the funds or expertise to invest in environmental technologies in areas such as effluent treatment, and that's where government has a role to play, adds Kuyk.

He believes the UK could be doing a lot more to reduce its water use footprint.

"We could have more state-of-the-art water treatment plants and reservoirs,"​ says Kuyk. "But this is a job for government  ̶  most manufacturers can't just go and create a plant."

Furthermore, he believes such developments need to be part of a national water strategy. "We need to think seriously about the best strategy for dealing with these different patterns. We need to collect water in the wet months to balance out the dry ones."

As for implementing such strategies, the UK lags behind countries such as Germany on water management and treatment due to a slower legislative process, according to Adam Baisley, commercial director of waste and energy recycling firm Olleco (formally Agri Energy.)

"It is no secret that Germany is a long way ahead of us,"​ says Baisley.

As big an issue as water management is for food firms, Baisley believes it should be part of a broader environmental management plan.

"Water is a big issue, but all resources are becoming an issue  ̶  waste, energy, carbon, water, commodities  ̶  we cannot focus on one we have to concentrate our efforts on them all," ​he claims. "What we need to do is manage what we have much more effectively."

But Kuyk disagrees. For him, water is completely different to other environmental issues. He says it is therefore imperative that food firms look at minimising water waste and securing supplies sustainably before it is too late.

"Water cannot be considered along with other environmental issues,"​ he says. "Water is unique and irreplaceable. You can find renewable energy, if there is no cardboard you can use plastics, but if you run out of water you cannot use something else."

Anaerobic digestion: The UK's lack of waste management

The relatively low numbers of anaerobic digestion plants in the UK reflects how far behind other countries the industry lags in terms of waste management, according to waste and energy recycling firm Olleco.

Anaerobic digestion uses microorganisms to break down organic waste and convert it into biogas and digestate. Biogas can be used for running engines, burned to produce heat or can be cleaned and used in the same way as natural gas or vehicle fuel. The digestate can be used as a renewable fertiliser or soil conditioner.

Olleco's commercial director Adam Baisley argues that the UK has a long way to go to catch up with countries such as Germany.

"There is lots of room for improvement in the way food and drink manufacturers deal with waste,"​ says Baisley. "The UK currently has about 600 anaerobic digestion plants while Germany has about 6,000."

"These plants help to segregate waste and turn it into something valuable that can be re-used,"​ he adds.

"You don't have to throw anything away anymore; there is a use for everything."

Baisley argues that the proliferation of anaerobic digestion schemes shows that food and drink manufacturers are already aware that they should no longer see anything left over in their production processes as waste and should instead concentrate efforts to recycling or re-using everything.

"Companies should take advantage of things like anaerobic digestion plants that can take your waste and turn it into a valuable resource,"​ he says.

Related topics Supply Chain Services

Related news

Show more

Related products

show more

Related suppliers

Follow us

Featured Jobs

View more