Wednesday, 23 Sep 2020

Water use in the food industry

As the stage is set for an increase in the global consuming class, experts predict there will be a tremendous increase in consumer spending. The growth of the consumer sector is bound to put stress on key environmental parameters such as water. A glance at the food and drink industry reveals some disturbing numbers. According to UK’s Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IME), the global water requirements to meet food demand in 2050 could reach between 10–13.5 trillion cubic metres per year[1]. Considering that water is a key requirement to their sustenance, Food and Drink companies across the world have been addressing the issue of water conservation. For example, Coca Cola has been funding water harvesting projects in India. Recently, food and drink company members of the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) Food and Drink Federation (FDF) developed a series of new sustainability commitments in seven areas, including water. Their goal is to ensure continuous improvement in water use across the supply chain and contribute to an industry-wide target of 20% reduction in water use by 2020.

While this is commendable, the Food and Drink sector has the potential to be more aggressive in their water conservation efforts. In fact, this sector could be a melting pot for innovations in water conservation and treatment. As it stands, there are several technologies and solutions that have been around for a long time and yet are not being used widely due to the perceived sense that water is an un-extinguishable resource. Add to that a host of start-up companies as well as on-going research focused on improving water efficiency in agriculture, and there is immense opportunity for reduce fresh water consumption. Some of these technologies and solutions have been outlined in this article.

According to a McKinsey Research, the supply chain of a typical consumer company creates higher social and environmental costs than its own operations[2]. Particularly in the Food and Drink Industry, more than 90% of the impact on natural resources (air, soil, water) results from its supply chain and less than 10% from its own operations. And yet, there is dis-proportional attention paid to supply chains vs their own operations.

Looking back at the supply chain in the Food Industry, Primary Production (in the form of agriculture) plays a huge role. 70% of the world’s water resources goes to agriculture[3]. As such, it is the area where maximum savings can be achieved. Across the world, incredible research is being done by Universities and Agriculturists alike on increasing the efficiency of water use. Some of the innovative and progressive technologies and solutions have been listed here.

— Drip Irrigation:

Drip Irrigation as a concept has caught on across the world as one of the most water efficient technologies. It finds its origins in Israel, where engineers and scientists were looking for ways to use water efficiently in desert climates, founding Netafim, the original drip irrigation country. Today, drip irrigation has evolved in efficiency and the new systems aspire to use about half litre of water in an hour — a huge improvement over sprinkler and flood irrigation. More than 75% of Israeli farming and half of the irrigation in California uses drip irrigation. Drip irrigation is widely popular even in India, where several drip irrigation companies have sprouted and work with small and large scale farmers.

— Sensing and Monitoring:

Several California growers are using technology to monitor the health of the soil, changing climates and field data to determine their watering patterns. Climate Corporation, for example, is one such company that examines weather, soil and field data to help farmers determine potential yield-limiting factors in their fields. Keeping track of key field data ensures efficient use of water and improves the health of their crops.

— Water Recycling and Re-use:

The use of treated water for irrigation has not yet caught on as a very popular concept as growers are wary of maintaining a consistent quality of treated water. However, with advanced treatment options as well as state-of-the art monitoring and sensing equipment, treated water should be considered a serious contender when evaluating water sources. In today’s circular economy, re-using and recycling water has become easier and has a huge role to play in conserving our water resources.

— Rainwater Harvesting:

Rainwater harvesting has been practiced in parts of India since the third century BC for agriculture. It evolved in the deserts of India and soon spread to all parts of the country where rainwater was collected in large tanks and ponds. A little known fact is that the town of Venice depended on rainwater for several centuries as their primary source of drinking water. Although rainwater harvesting is less used today, it can serve as an important supplement to fresh water Farmland Rainwater harvesting in India has designed systems to collect rainwater, treat and re-charge groundwater through borewells that are dry. Rainwater runoff can carry several contaminants including pesticide and fertiliser, making it important to treat it before recharging the aquifer.

Rainwater can also be collected in large ponds or tanks and re-used for agriculture. Companies like the D & H GroupRainwater Harvesting Systems and Farming Futures in the UK provide rainwater harvesting products and solutions sometimes suited for agriculture. With nearly 800 mm of yearly rainfall, UK has tremendous potential for harvesting and using rainwater. However, the potential for the use of rainwater for agriculture has remained largely untapped in the UK and across the West. On the other hand, water scarcity in countries like India has encouraged several industries and manufacturing facilities to use rooftop rainwater in their processing operations. Being soft water, it has an additional advantage of requiring very little treatment before re-use. Farmers also claim that rainwater easily mixes with fertiliser.

Other water-consuming operations in the Food and Drink industry include Cleaning and sanitation, as an Ingredient, and Processing Operations. While use of water as an ingredient would require high quality potable water, the Industry should consider the use of treated water or rainwater for the other two operations. With so many ways of conserving fresh water resources and with operations across the globe, the Food and Drink Industry would do well to take advantage of local technologies, solutions and expertise to achieve their water reduction goals, with huge benefits to the local environment and society.




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