The Food We Drink

The Food We Drink

May 28, 2014

Virtual water is an estimate of the water embedded in traded commodities. Everyone in the food industry is in the virtual water business. If you sell food, you’re in the business of selling water because it takes water to produce the food and merchandise you sell (How Much Water Does It TakeTFJ,7/13). With agriculture using approximately 70% of the world’s accessible freshwater to produce the food and fiber we need to survive, food manufacturers and retailers are growing more aware of the necessity to incorporate a water footprint analysis into their sustainability plans. Consumers want more transparency about the products they are buying. They may soon make water efficiency a requirement for companies that want to remain leaders in the food industry; especially as water becomes more limited, and consumers in certain areas can no longer afford to purchase food to eat (The Food Basket of America – Hungry People, No Water, TFJ, 2/14). 

Virtual water challenges:

Collaborative water governance across international borders is the responsibility of governments through international agreements. It is also becoming the responsibility of the private sector, NGOs and communities with a focus on the stressed watersheds. Karin Krchnak, Director, Freshwater program, WWF, spoke to The Food Journal about this topic. "I will admit it is a challenge with virtual water because there are decisions made on so many levels – regulatory agencies and private sector.  It is a challenge to transform on a global scale and get into those deep issues. The World Water Council has created a forum to incite global dialogue and action, including TransAtlantic and TransPacific dialogues at regional levels with events in Africa, Asia and beyond.  China and India have so many political issues they are dealing with that water goes lower on the list of priorities, and meanwhile there is the growing stress of water security issues."


Standards are being written such as the Alliance for Water Stewardship Global Water Stewardship Standard“which defines a set of water stewardship criteria and indicators for how water should be stewarded at a site and catchment level in a way that is environmentally, socially, and economically beneficial.” To view water stress across the globe, view World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct, measuring and mapping water risk.

It’s in the ingredients:

The water footprint of a soft drink can be measured by its ingredients. The Water Footprint Network evaluates soft drinks, with an emphasis on sugar stating “the biggest impact of the water footprint of the soft drink is related to the sugar ingredient.  “When we did our water footprint study of embedded water in a final product, the main driver of our ultimate water footprint is our agricultural ingredients,” says Greg Koch, Global Director of Water Stewardship, Coca-Cola. Priority ingredients for Coca-Cola are sugar from sugarcane, oranges and corn. “A corn plant or an orange needs a specific amount of water based on nutrients, sunlight, etc. They won’t use more or less if it is available but just what they need. The water footprint is the starting point, not the end point,” explains Koch. “A bottle of orange juice has a certain amount of water in the footprint. You look at where water comes from to grow the orange; same with sugar cane and with corn. You won’t change how much water the orange uses or the stalk of sugarcane, but you can change the amount you use to grow it.” Coca-Cola partnered with the World Wildlife Fund in the Transformative Partnership to Conserve Waterwhich issued an Annual 2012 Review. READ FULL INTERVIEW WITH GREG KOCH HERE

Ag solutions for products with a high water footprint:

Animal agriculture also uses water. Dairy products have water footprints from the food the cow needs to eat, the water it takes to grow the cow’s food and the water the cow needs to drink. Aside from the milk from the cow, there is the beef from the cow as well which is high up on the list as an embedded water product. Cotton no matter how we take it is a thirsty crop, but the watershed is really a key. 

“Precision Ag in large commodity crops in the developed world will be a key enabler when we look at the future,” comments Jerry Lynch, VP and Chief Sustainability Office, General Mills, in an interview with The Food Journal. “Water conservation is not product specific; it is watershed specific. While climate is a global problem needing globally attentive solutions, water is very specific to the regional watershed,” says Lynch. READ FULL INTERVIEW WITH JERRY LYNCH

In their 2014 Global Responsibility ReportGeneral Mills has committed to sustainably sourcing ten material ingredients by 2020, and water is a key to sourcing sustainably.

What about bottled water?

How much water does it take to make bottled water? A video on Nestle’s web site entitledHow much water does it take to make bottled water?” explains that bottled water uses less water than any other packaged beverage. There are conflicting opinions. In the video The Story of Bottled Water it is stated that if companies want to grow, they have to sell more stuff.  Bottled water helps meet manufactured demand. Oil is used to make water bottles and that oil could be used in other ways.  Then the bottles are shipped around the planet using more fuel. We drink from the bottles and then need to dispose of them, often in landfills or in other ways that take more energy.   

We need to use our water resources efficiently and wisely. The impact of water use needs to be minimized. While efficiency, solutions and sustainability are on the forefront of solving our global water problem, political will is also key to address water challenges. Another key issue is whether the true market cost of water is reflected in the prices of the products we buy. As water demand increases, competition for water will likely lead to price increases. Current and future generations will grapple with water governance while also trying to ensure environmental and wildlife needs are met.