Plans for a low-water diet

Sensemaking / Plans for a low-water diet

08 Apr 2011

The food industry’s number one resource demands innovative and efficient management, says David Burrows

Imagine a world without oil, and a spectrum of renewables springs to mind. However dependent we are on it, oil is – both theoretically and practically – replaceable.

Water, on the other hand, is not. As Nestlé Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe warned in 2008, “Under present conditions, and with the way water is being managed, we will run out of water long before we run out of fuel”.

Unlike oil, demand already outstrips supply. According to a McKinsey report on water scarcity in 2009, more than a third of the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas by 2030. “We expect water to grow from being a marginal issue to one that is central to all parts of the economy,” the report concluded.

Safe to say, it already is. All industries are reliant on water, but arguably none more so than the food industry. Agriculture accounts for 70% of global water use, and farmers are the first victims of water problems in terms of quantity, quality and access, according to the International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP).

The availability of water is already having an impact on food prices and supply. The droughts in Russia in 2010 provoked Vladimir Putin to impose an export ban on wheat – a move which sent wheat prices to a 23-month high. Elsewhere in the world, the problem has been not too little water, but too much. In India, heavy rainfall out of season had a damaging effect on many of the country’s key cash crops, such as cotton and tea. By September 2010, the tea harvest had fallen short by 20 million kilograms compared to the previous year. This put “quite a lot of pressure” on the market, according to Mark Lawson, Director of Tea Buying for Tata Global Beverages.

Food businesses are increasingly attentive to the impact of water on supply chains. “Companies are realising that water is a material and strategic issue now, and not one for 20 years’ time”, says Marcus Norton, who heads up the Carbon Disclosure Project’s work on water.

Among them is Unilever. In the annual City Food Lecture, CEO Paul Polman said that the company is becoming “concerned” about whether the regions that produce its tomatoes – including Greece, Spain and California – will have “adequate water in the coming decade to guarantee us the harvest that meets our business needs”.

Leading businesses are already working with their suppliers to find solutions. Unilever is turning to drip irrigation (a system in which water is dripped slowly through small holes in pipes run along the base of the plants) to ensure its tomato supply.

“With our tomato growers in California, we’ve been able to double the yields by providing the right varieties and using drip irrigation,” says Jan Kees Vis, the company’s Sustainable Agriculture Director. Trials funded by Unilever with the Indian Government have also seen success: gherkin yields rose 84% while water use fell by 70%. Importantly, profit per kilo has also “more than doubled” for the gherkin farmers [see ‘Magic in a gherkin’ box, 'Country life', in Special Edition Monsoons and Miracles].

PepsiCo, which buys oats for its Quaker brand, apples to make Copella juice and potatoes for Walkers crisps, is another case in point. “We know where the water-stressed areas are and we are targeting our efforts there,” says David Wilkinson, the company’s Director of Agriculture. PepsiCo is looking at more water-efficient crop varieties and, with the help of Cambridge University Farms, has created an irrigation management tool called ‘i-crop’ to help growers produce more, with less water. It’s applying the same principles back at the factory, trialling a technology to capture the water lost when potatoes are cooked, and to recycle it for use in cleaning, peeling and slicing [see 'PepsiCo to harvest water from spuds'].

Unlike carbon, where a tonne saved in one area is the same as a tonne saved in another, water issues and impacts are localised. But the drive for ‘more crop per drop’ is not limited to dry climates. Wet as it can be, parts of the UK are coming under increasing water stress.

Indeed, England’s climate isn’t as uniformly damp as is often supposed. The eastern half of the country receives less rain than many parts of Turkey, and the majority of crops in East Suffolk (potatoes, carrots, onions and parsnips) depend on irrigation. But 63% of local water resources have been assessed by the Environment Agency as either “over licensed” or “over abstracted”, which means the farmers are first to face restrictions in a drought. If no water were available for irrigation, the value of agriculture in the area could fall by over £30 million a year, according to a study by Cranfield University.

Andrew Thompson, a researcher in plant sciences at the University of Warwick, is working on a prototype network of field sensors that collect data on soil moisture at different depths. The data is transferred wirelessly to software which determines where, when and how much to irrigate. The system helps to avoid “a host of problems in potatoes” caused by an uneven water supply, explains Thompson, both improving yield and minimising water use.

Ways to cut water use are also ways to save money. Moving water around a farm isn’t cheap. Farmers may only be charged a few pence per cubic metre to abstract water (at a rate limited by their licence), but then pumping, pressurising and delivering to an irrigation system can add another 40-50p per cubic metre. Storing it can double that cost.

“When people say water is cheap for irrigated agriculture in the UK, they are up a gum tree”, says Jerry Knox, an expert in irrigation and water resources at Cranfield University. “For farmers, it’s a highly valuable commodity, so using it more efficiently is their primary objective.”

To complement tools for efficient water management, Thompson is working to reduce the water that plants lose through transpiration. The pores on a leaf open and close in order to take in carbon dioxide, but lose water as a result. Researchers have found that in tomatoes the pores are actually opening more than they need to in relation to the carbon dioxide they require. Using GM approaches, Thompson has managed to optimise the opening of the pores without a penalty in terms of growth. The result?

“You need about 50% less water,” he explains. “We can also do it with traditional breeding techniques, but the savings are about 20%.”

However impressive the technological innovations, the key to local water management is collaboration. Here again, Unilever is on the mark, working with suppliers, regional governments and researchers.

In parts of the world where farmers have faced water scarcity – from Peru to Nepal – growers have, for some time, been running water abstraction groups, or WAGs. These groups not only allow them to work together to minimize and share water scarcity in a sustainable manner, but also to defend their existing rights and communicate with the regulators.

The UK’s water regulator, the Environment Agency, is encouraging the concept of WAGs to help other catchment areas make progress like this, but to date there are only six in operation.

Andrew Alston heads up the Broadland Agricultural WAG, which now has 180 members across Norfolk with abstraction licences for 13 million cubic metres of water. “We’ll fight for every last drop of that because the farmers need it,” says Alston, “but at the same time we are making huge progress in the way we manage what we have.”

Indeed, BAWAG has turned one of its catchment areas from a position of over-abstraction (where the amount of water being taken is unsustainable) to one of over-licensing (where the full license amounts are not being taken). How?

“We’ve put reservoirs in place to collect water during the winter and using open seed beds. A lot of the land is hilly, and the soil is gravelly, which means when we got a lot of rain it was just running off. Now the open seed beds allow more water to be taken on by the soil,” explains Alston.

The combination of efficiency savings and greater awareness of our dependence on this precious – and precarious – resource should prove carrot and stick enough for most farmers and food producers. Those lagging behind can expect a wake-up call as the price we pay for water creeps up to meet its true value.

- David Burrows

This article is taken from the Green Futures Special Edition, Tomorrow's food, tomorrow's farms.

Image credits: lucascavalheiro / istock

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