Organic fruit and vegetables

What’s the water cost of your food? (Day 143)

Yesterday was World Food Day and I’ve taken the opportunity to explore one of the lesser known challenges involved in providing enough food to an expanding population.

The numbers illustratCEM just logoe the challenge – we ‘eat’ 3,496 litres of water everyday and it is one of the issues being explored in IChemE’s first green paper, published yesterday, as a part of our Chemical Engineering Matters technical policy.

Generally, a ‘green paper’ is a policy document designed to stimulate discussion with a wider audience and get the conversation started about what we should do next.

It’s a phrase and approach IChemE is borrowing to help lead the debate on key issues around energy, water, food and health.

Our first green paper – called Water Management in the Food and Drink Industry’ – discusses the importance of water management in the food and drink industry, and the role that chemical engineers play in this.

We often think about the carbon footprint of our food, but we rarely consider the water footprint of our food.

This green paper is particularly interesting as it highlights one of the less talked about consequences of climate change and population expansion – how important water is for food production.

This year World Food Day 2014 focuses on the significant role of smallholder farmers in feeding the world. Around 500 million small family farms are responsible for 80 per cent of all food production.

buckets of water

An estimated 70 per cent of all extracted freshwater is used for agriculture alone with 20 per cent being used in the production and processing industries (including food processing), leaving just 10 per cent for domestic use (e.g. drinking water, sanitation).

By 2050, it is estimated that there will be nine billion people, so we will need 60 per cent more food and thus there will be a 19 per cent increase in agricultural water use. Every day an individual will drink 2 to 4 L of water, but they will eat 2000-5000 L of virtual water in their food. There is a hidden cost of water in the food we eat.

Chemical engineers can work with these small family farms, which are so important for food production, in producing food efficiently but using less water.

Tackling water scarcity

Chemical engineers are implementing three strategies developed to manage water in the food industry:
1. Reducing water use
2. Recycling and reusing waste water
3. Using alternative water sources

IChemE has outlined a series of recommendations for governments, industry and decision makers, but I think that this is something we can and should all be working to change.

It has been suggested that globally governments need to be spending US$800 billion per year to ensure our water security. But this green paper only highlights the necessity of doing this now.

The world needs a bigger bucketWater is a finite resource, which is essential to food production. Chemical engineers are working to ensure that the food industry achieves a step change in the reduction of water use with the end goal of water neutrality. Chemical engineers are and will make a central contribution towards ensuring that all processes are efficient, cost-effective and, sustainable.

This green paper will be followed by a webinar describing some of the issues in water management on the 4 November 2014. This webinar will be given by Alexandre Le Vernoy – SABMiller Water and Food Resources Analyst – and will discuss why water security is imperative to long term and sustainable growth.


What do you think of IChemE’s first green paper? Why not get in touch and start the discussion.

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