August 2, 2010 by Mark Crane

wca’s Chairman, John Fawell, has recently worked on several water sustainability projects for food companies. Water footprint is becoming much more important for many companies – and this is particularly the case for various parts of the food industry, which has been scrutinised and subsequently criticised by many green groups. Much of this criticism is not based on firm evidence, but the industry is nonetheless sensitive to the way in which it is perceived. As a consequence several food companies are showing a keen interest in water conservation and water sustainability.

There are various stages at which water sustainability becomes important and can have an impact on operations. There are also issues of cost saving, since water usually has to be paid for. The stages that are of greatest interest are:

1. Sourcing of raw materials, particularly crops, and developing ways of determining the most water efficient and sustainable sources.

2. Recycling water in processing, from washing crops, through to bottling, canning and general washing and rinsing. This is also linked into concerns about introducing potential contaminants, as was the case with the pre-washed salad industry.

ILSI Europe was active in starting this process by publishing a report on Considering Water Quality for Use in the Food Industry. More recently ILSI has examined water use in agriculture, initially focussing on oil crops, and has developed an approach to compare the water sustainability of various crop sources. The process begins with where the crop is grown, and needs to consider whether green or blue water is used and to what extent. ILSI has prepared a report which discusses ways of achieving more recycling, co-authored by John, who chairs their Expert Group on Sustainable Water Management for Crops. The key is to make the exercise as cost-effective as possible – some academic groups have recommended relatively complex approaches, but these may obscure rather than solve the problem.