Raising a glass to water efficiency

Sensemaking / Raising a glass to water efficiency

With water an increasingly precious resource, Oliver Balch finds out how the food and drink industry is rising to the challenge of dry times.

03 Dec 2012

With water an increasingly precious resource, Oliver Balch finds out how the food and drink industry is rising to the challenge of dry times. 

Many might envy Andy Wood. He oversees a successful regional brewery. He counts some of the UK's leading retailers among his customers. And he gets to work in the picturesque town of Southwold on the Suffolk coast.

The success of Adnams – which produces around 85,000 barrels of cask ale a year – is not without effort. Nor is it necessarily permanent. Over the last ten years, the Suffolk brewer has installed a range of resource efficiency measures to ensure its on-going efficiency.

As with many food and drinks companies, water comes high on the list. Southwold is located in East Anglia, the UK's driest region. Earlier this year, the county was subject to water restrictions as low rainfall threatened an extended draught.

"As a mid-sized business, we need to keep an absolutely tight control over our costs", Wood says, highlighting a major driver for water-dependent industries.

The construction of a new distribution site and brewery back in 2006 and 2007, respectively, gave Adnams the opportunity to upgrade its on-site water efficiencies. Rainwater harvesting and grey water recycling systems are now standard. Its anaerobic digester for wastewater veers closer to cutting-edge.

The East Anglian brewer hasn't left things there. It has linked the water inputs for its distillery and its brewery – essentially cutting its water needs in half at a single stroke.

Adnams today uses around three pints of water for every pint of beer produced: that's almost half the industry average. Its water efficiency has won the eye of some of the UK's big retailers, who are "interested themselves with the sustainability story", says Wood.

One of those is Marks and Spencer (M&S). Under its Plan A strategy, the UK high street retailer is seeking to decrease its own water consumption. Innovations like sensor taps, flush valves and urinal controls are finding their way into more than 300 M&S stores. It's even trialling waterless urinals.

Water chains

In-house measures are only part of the story. The bulk of the water footprint for big retailers occurs in their supply chains. A value chain analysis by the UK's largest supermarket, Tesco, found that its own stores account for only 3% of its total water use.

In July, Anglian Water Business held the Global Water Challenge: a major conference for companies and stakeholders to share strategic thinking on water use in the supply chain. Louise Nicholls, Head of Responsible Trading for Food at M&S, spoke about the role of water in the responsible sourcing of food products, and the need for businesses to engage upstream. M&S has committed to improving efficiency and stewardship in four parts of its supply chain that are particularly vulnerable to water stress: cotton production, dye houses, farming and food manufacture.

At the same event, Phillip Hubbert of specialist lettuce producer JE Piccaver described the significant investment the company has made in water efficiency, such as developing targeted irrigation techniques and installing rainwater storage. It is now looking to improve water use in offices, warehouses and packing centres. "As is often the case when you do things for economic reasons, it turns out to be the sustainable route as well", he said.

The case is particularly clear when it comes to agriculture, which of all global sectors, is by far the largest user of water. As Marcus Norton, Head of Water and investor climate change programmes at the Carbon Disclosure Project, explains: "Growing raw ingredients accounts for much more water than [food] processing or brewing. This is where much of the risk lies."

Addressing these supply-side risks calls for innovation. Experiments in drought-resilient crops provide a case in point. PepsiCo, for example, is currently researching water-efficient varieties of potato for use in crisp manufacture. In a similar vein, General Mills has been pioneering an advanced drip irrigation system with broccoli and cauliflower growers in Mexico.

Even more important than innovation is collaboration

Even more important than innovation, however, is collaboration. Multiple sectors are involved in using water, and they also need to be involved in conserving it. In the UK, Wessex Water is working with farmers – on land outside its own catchment area – to reduce the amount of treatment groundwater needs due to the presence of pesticides and nitrates in the soil. These pollutants can be removed at specialised treatment plants, but building and operating them is both expensive and carbon intensive. Such a plant was planned for Eagle Lodge, in Dorchester, but the need for it was overcome when farmers worked closely with a Wessex adviser to improve some elements of their practice, from manure management and the use of fertiliser, to the drilling dates for crops.

Similarly, in Kenya, a multi-stakeholder education project, supported by retailers M&S and Tesco, is working with farmers and local residents to improve water stewardship at Lake Naivasha, the country's second largest freshwater lake. The project aims to re-establish a healthy ecosystem, in which plants and micro-organisms treat the water through natural processes, avoiding ground pollution.

For collaborative approaches to succeed, companies must win the hearts and minds of local people, insists Mike Barry, Head of Sustainable Business at M&S: "Of all the sustainability challenges that we face, water is the most location-specific. It defies one technology fix."

With this in mind, the retailer has worked with environmental charity WWF to produce a 16-page guide to Good Water Stewardship. Its aim is to influence M&S's global network of around 10,000 agricultural producers. The document clarifies the nature of water-related risks – physical, financial, political and reputational – and outlines strategies for engaging local partners. As Barry explains, "Beyond providing a broad framework [for farmers] to explore water conservation, we can't lecture from an office in London, saying in India you do X, and in South Africa you do Y."

Andrew Kuyk is Director of Sustainability and Competitiveness at the London-based Food and Drink Federation (FDF). Asked for examples of locally-specific solutions, he points to Nestlé in the Punjab. The Swiss food conglomerate is encouraging local dairy farmers in the north Indian state to intensify milk production and thereby reduce water use. A wider fodder area, more lactating cows, and higher cow productivity are some of the ways in which this is being achieved.

In the same region, Nestlé is working with the International Water Management Institute to minimise the water footprint of rice production. It takes 1,034m3 of irrigation water to produce a tonne of rice in the Punjab – almost twice that for dairy farming. Among the measures being implemented is laser-assisted land levelling, which reduces groundwater pumping by one-third while also improving rice yields.

Back in East Anglia, specialist lettuce producer Jepco is taking a high-tech approach. The firm has installed Enviroscan probes that detect electrical conductivity resistance to measure soil moisture during the entire growing period. The data can be monitored via computer or smartphone, and is then fed through into the mobile boom used for irrigation. The location and water use for each pull of the boom is subsequently recorded as well.

Kuyk calls on businesses to take an integrated view of water-related risks and impacts across product lifecycles. US beverage giant Coca-Cola has opted for just such a strategy. Under its Community Water Partnerships programme, it's pursuing over 300 community-based water replenishment projects in 86 countries. Further up the chain, water reduction measures in its factories have seen the water use ratio drop 16% since 2004, to 2.6 litres per litre of product. By the end of 2012, meanwhile, Coca Cola is requiring all its bottlers to have water management plans in place.

Dax Lovegrove, Head of Business and Industry at WWF, is also a strong advocate of holistic approaches to water management. To be successful, however, companies must have a clear idea of their impacts from the off. That requires a comprehensive assessment of water abstraction and pollution in critical river basins.

Among the examples he cites is that of global brewer SABMiller [see box]. Back in 2009, the company worked with environment group WWF and consultancy URS Corporation to map the water impacts of its businesses in South Africa and the Czech Republic. Anyone interested in water footprinting their operations would do well to check out the methodology in the subsequent report.

As Lovegrove concludes: "Leading businesses understand this is less about water efficiency in isolation and more about understanding local situations and mobilising collective efforts to ensure water security for all: communities, wildlife, and industry."

Going local: SABMiller

"Water is a global challenge, but the solutions are all local." That, in a nutshell, is the thinking behind SABMiller's flagship Water Futures initiative.

Operational in nine countries, from Colombia and the US to India and Zambia, the initiative aims to develop collective solutions to pressing water risks in cities and watersheds. Andy Wales, Head of Sustainable Development at the beverage company, cites a project in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Agricultural and industrial activity in the region has severely impacted the water table. To remedy the situation, SABMiller has helped fund four water recharge dams. Located on natural fissures, the relatively low-cost structures retain the monsoon rains long enough for the aquifer below to be replenished. The move has seen the groundwater rise by nine metres already – equivalent to the needs of SABMiller's brewery in the area.

"This is about ensuring that our breweries have long-term access to high quality water", says Wales. "But to achieve that, you can't just deal with the brewery. It has to be about the value chain and the watersheds."

Oliver Balch is a freelance journalist specialising in the role of business in society.

Photo: istockphoto/ Thinkstock

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