Thirsty planet: Water conservation in the food industry

August 7, 2015
4 min read

For the fourth year in a row, California continues to suffer from an epic drought. According to the US Drought Monitor, the majority of the state is under either exceptional or extreme drought conditions. As of March 2015, Governor Jerry Brown imposed mandatory restrictions on water use for the first time in the state’s history. Conditions in Brazil are also dire, with 17 of the country’s 18 biggest reservoirs at lower levels than during the last water crisis in 2001. São Paulo remains in the midst of a full-blown crisis, with the lack of water in a state of 41 million leading to widespread rationing.

A recent report published by the United Nations (UN) claims that the world could face a 40% water shortfall in just 15 years. The annual World Water Development report predicts that global water demand will increase by 55% to 2050 as resources dwindle due to a combination of low underwater reserves and erratic rainfall caused by climate change. If current usage does not change, the UN claims the world will only have 60% of the water it requires by 2030. Adding to the problem is the increasing global population, expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Further strains will be placed on natural resources as more groundwater will be required for farming, industry and personal consumption. The report urges politicians and communities to rethink their water policies and consider making a greater effort to conserve water.

The need to conserve water in the food industry, including agriculture and food manufacturing, is significant. According to the UN, agriculture accounts for 70% of global freshwater withdrawals. By 2050, agriculture will need to produce 60% more food globally to meet demands, according to Ceres’ Feeding Ourselves Thirsty report. The world would have to increase its water supply for irrigation by 14-17% by 2030 just to meet its dietary needs of a growing population.

20% of global food and drink launches made an ethical/environmental claim in 2014
Similar to the concept behind carbon footprints, water footprints are being created to evaluate water usage and its impact on the environment. Water footprints are calculated from the total amount of water used from three categories of water – blue, green, and grey water. Blue water is the water extracted from rivers, lakes, and groundwater. Green water is rainwater used directly by crops and grey water is the amount of water needed to dilute polluted water into a usable condition.

The use of ethical and environmental claims on food and drink products is on the rise, driven by environmentally friendly package and product claims. In 2011, 13% of global food and drink launches made an ethical/environmental claim, climbing to 20% of launches in 2014.

Brands make an Impact

Although very few products are found discussing their water footprint on pack, companies are taking steps to conserve water. Nestlé USA recently announced plans to reduce their water consumption in California. The company announced a $7 million water savings project that will convert Nestlé’s dairy plant in Modesto, CA to a “zero water” factory, similar to a facility built by the company in Mexico in 2014. All water used within the facility comes from recycled water from within its dairy operation, which will save approximately 63 million gallons of water a year.

Water conservation is especially important in products where water makes up the majority of the finished product. Heineken’s “Brewing a Better World” has saved the company $83.8 million in the last six years by using less energy and water. Heineken’s long-term sustainability project has reduced its breweries’ water consumption by 23% since 2008 and aim to further reduce water consumption by 30% by 2020.

Final Thoughts

Changing weather patterns caused by global warming will increase the need for companies and governments to be more conservative when it comes to water usage. Communicating water-saving efforts will resonate with consumers, especially with those in drought-stricken areas. According to Marketing to the Green Consumer US 2014, 48% of consumers are interested in companies’ green practices. Additionally, 61% of US consumers would rather that companies work to improve their business practices to be green than make donations to green organizations. As droughts in California and Brazil continue to get media attention, consumers may also be interested in companies’ water practices.

Stephanie Mattucci is a Global Food Science Analyst at Mintel. Prior to Mintel, Stephanie worked as a Food Scientist in R&D for an ingredients company in Chicago, where she specialized in seasoning product development and provided technical expertise to customers in the food industry.

Stephanie Mattucci
Stephanie Mattucci

Stephanie Mattucci is the Associate Director, Food Science at Mintel. Prior to Mintel, Stephanie worked as a food scientist in R&D for an ingredients company.

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