Reduce water use in food production, engineers urge

Friday, 09 January, 2015

How much water is in your food? Not the actual liquid content, but how much water does it take to produce that apple you just ate or the sandwich you had for lunch? A UN Water study suggests that each person ‘consumes’ between 2000 and 5000 litres of water through their food each day - or up to 1.8 million litres annually.

Around 90% of all fresh water is used by agriculture (70%) and industry (20%), leaving just 10% for domestic use. However, as our population increases and more people adopt a western diet, water extraction is estimated to increase by over 50% to 6.9 billion m3 per year.

This will result in around two-thirds of the world’s population living in ‘water scarce’ areas, compared to just 7% at present. The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) is urging coordinated action to reduce the amount of hidden water used in food and drink production to avert this crisis.

“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,” said Andy Furlong, IChemE director of policy.

“Estimates suggest that we will need to produce 60% more food by 2050. Agriculture will need around 19% 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.”

Chemical engineers recommend that we set a global target to reduce the amount of water used in food production worldwide by 20%. They also suggest regulations and incentives to induce industry to monitor water usage, as well as using alternative and sustainable water supplies.

“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,” Furlong said.

A full analysis of the hidden water footprint in food, plus IChemE’s recommendations, is contained in a new IChemE policy report: Water Management in the Food and Drink Industry.

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