Sustainable Water Management in the Food Sector

Water is crucial in every stage of food and beverage production, from the initial farming to produce the raw goods to the processing, transportation and retail of the final product we see on the shelves.

The global food and beverage sector has been called “The thirsty business” due to the amount of water that is consumed in its production processes. Over 70% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals are for agriculture. This is unsustainable if we are to avert a future global water crisis. This article outlines the key problems and suggests what can be done to overcome them.  

Food Processing: A Thirsty Business

More than 70% of global water use is down to the production of food and drink. This rises to over 90% in some developing countries. Water is crucial in every stage of food and beverage production, from the initial farming to produce the raw goods to the processing, transportation and retail of the final product we see on the shelves.    

Most people don’t see the hidden amount of water, or virtual water, involved in producing food and beverage. But it’s excessive. For example, it takes over 15,000 liters to produce a kilogram of beef and 140 liters of water for just a single cup of coffee.  

Water Is Used For Processes Including: 

  • Irrigation for crop growth and animal feed, estimated at between 5938 and 8508 cubic kilometers of water a year globally. 
  • Pesticides and fertilizers application on crops  
  • Machine technology to process raw produce into sellable food and drink products – this includes costs of operating and cleaning the machinery 
  • Production of food packaging. For example, it takes around 235 liters of water to produce one kilogram of plastic that is used for bottled water.   
  • Heating and chilling of food to prolong its lifespan
  • Food transportation. It is estimated that the average meal travels around 2,400km to reach your plate.  
  • Dealing with food waste. Around 30% of food ends up wasted in countries like the US. According to the Water Footprint Network, the water footprint of avoidable food waste is 6,200 million cubic meters per year.  

With global population predicted to increase by 2 billion by 2050, the pressure on our water supply due to food demand will only increase unless we rethink how we use water in food and drink production processes.  

What Is Being Done to Save Water and Lower Water Use?  

The problem of over-use of water in agriculture and food processing is something that needs to be tackled at multiple levels – national, international, sector and individual company. While countries and international bodies focus on legislation and targets, companies can focus on becoming leaders and innovators in the area of water sustainability.  

Measures that can be put in place to reduce water footprint include: 

Businesses are starting to shift towards more sustainable strategies but recent reports still find that insufficient action is being taken. Among large global food companies, Unilever, Nestle, and Mars are among the front runners according to Feeding Ourselves Thirsty. Packaged food and beverage industries are the best performers but agriculture and meat industries lag behind. France currently leads the way from a country perspective regarding food sustainability, followed by the Netherlands and Canada. Belgium ranks 35th.  

Case Study: De Leite Brewery

This Belgian brewery worked with water sustainability experts to reduce its water footprint by around 25%. Brewing beer is a water-intensive process, with water not only used as a product ingredient but also involved in cleaning and rinsing of machinery. In order to reduce water consumption, De Leite commissioned a full water audit which identified potential water savings. These included refining production, cleaning and cooling processes, using smart meters to better monitor use, and utilizing rainwater supplies. The result was to reduce the amount of water used to 4 liters per one liter of beer produced.  

Water Experts is specialists in helping businesses and organizations reduce their water footprint by advising them in effective water management strategies. BOSAQ also supplies the Q-Drop product range that provides a renewable and cost-effective supply of drinking water.  

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