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Global action needed on water usage in food production

The UK’s Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) is urging coordinated action to reduce the amount of hidden water used in food and drink production – estimated at up to 1.8 million litres per person every year, equivalent to an Olympic size swimming pool.

Source: Institution of Chemical Engineers

Every day each person on the planet consumes between 2,000-5,000 litres of water embedded in their food – or between 730,000-1,825,000 million litres annually.

Currently, around 90 per cent of all freshwater is used by agriculture (70 per cent) and industry (20 per cent), leaving just 10 per cent for domestic use. As the population grows and more people move to a western-style diet, water extraction is estimated to increase by over 50 per cent to 6,900 billion m3 per year.

By 2050, the overall impact will see around two thirds of the world’s population living in ‘water scarce’ areas, compared to just seven per cent at present.

Andy Furlong, IChemE director of policy, said: “Chemical engineers provide many of the high level skills needed to provide the water, food, medicines and energy to sustain our ever-growing population.

“In recent years and decades, we have seen how difficult it has been to agree and set targets to manage issues like climate change.

“Population growth will throw up similar challenges and will have a direct impact on two of the building blocks for life – food and water.

“Estimates suggest that we will need to produce 60 per cent more food by 2050. Agriculture will need around 19 per cent more water to produce that extra food.

“It is clear that current production methods are unsustainable and there are genuine risks of food shortages, rising food prices, droughts and social unrest for future generations unless we make more efficient use of water.”

Furlong continued: “There are solutions, but these will require political will, major investment and lifestyle changes.

“Chemical engineers are recommending that a global target is set to reduce the amount of water used in food production worldwide by 20 per cent.

“In addition, a combination of regulations and incentives should be introduced to require industry to monitor their water usage, as well as be rewarded for using alternative and sustainable water supplies.

“Revised planning frameworks and investment will be needed for the construction of new capacity, infrastructure and appropriate technologies to improve efficiency of water management in food and drink production.

“Education also has a role to ensure that consumers understand better how their food is produced to enable them to make informed choices.

“None of this will be cheap or easy, but like the mitigation of climate change, it will be necessary to guarantee our quality of life”, concluded Furlong.

A full analysis of the hidden water footprint in food and IChemE’s recommendations are contained in a new policy report produced by IChemE called “Water Management in the Food and Drink Industry”, available here. Summary of recommendations:

  • All governments should set targets for reducing the amount of water used in food production worldwide by 20 per cent by 2020.
  • Industry should improve the monitoring of water usage in food production worldwide by using water footprinting.
  • Governments should ensure that the use of recycled water in food production becomes more widely accepted through creating, enforcing and promoting rigorous international quality standards.
  • Manufacturers should be incentivised to use alternative, sustainable sources of water (e.g. water in food, rainfall, saltwater).
  • An investment of £500 billion (US$800 billion) per year in the construction of new capacity, infrastructure and appropriate technologies to improve efficiency of water management globally.
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