Water scarcity will be one of the sharpest environmental, social and economic challenges of coming decades, and the food sector will feel this keenly. A report of our Business Forum meeting on water scarcity is now available and we can also announce contributors to our Spring ’08 magazine, which will explore the issue in depth.

The January meeting of the Food Ethics Council’s Business Forum discussed how food businesses are addressing the challenge of water scarcity and what more they should do. The meeting was chaired by David Croft, Director of Conformance and Sustainability at Cadbury Schweppes and a member of the Food Ethics Council. We are very grateful to our speakers, Tim Hess and Keith Weatherhead from Cranfield University.

We have published a summary1 of the meeting. The key points we took from it include:

  • Irrigated agriculture accounts for around 70 percent of all abstracted blue water.
  • It takes anywhere between 1,000 L and 5,500 L to produce the food we eat in a day, depending on our diet. By contrast, UK daily water use in the home averages 153 L.
  • Yet the pressure food places on water resources depends on where and how it is produced. The impact depends on more than just the quantity.
  • Water stress, which is already a serious problem in the UK and globally, will be made worse by climate change.
  • Water is already a survival issue for some food businesses and commercial concerns are driving water efficiency.

However, business responses are not necessarily in the wider public interest and there is a risk food companies will simply cut and run from water-stressed regions.

Embedded water is unsuited to labelling but there is an urgent need to standardise water footprinting methods businesses use for benchmarking and accreditation.

Businesses should take part in wider social and policy debates about regulation, technology, land use and dietary shifts to mitigate water stress, and support the broader policy shifts needed to underpin better water management.

‘No regret’ adaptation and mitigation measures are a priority.

Water scarcity is the focus of the latest edition of Food Ethics2 magazine, featuring many of the key experts and commentators on water issues, including: Tony Allan, who coined the concept of ‘virtual water’; Lord Rooker, UK Minister for Sustainable Food and Farming; David Molden, who runs the International Water Management Institute; Wenonah Hauter, head of Food and Water Watch; Nick Reeves, Executive Director of the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management; Jeanette Longfield, who runs Sustain; Johan Rockström, Executive Director of the Stockholm Environment Institute; Clive Bates, head of UNEP in Sudan; Jacob Tompkins, who runs WaterWise; the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology's Mike Acreman; water footprint researcher Maite Aldaya; and Maria Arce from Practical Action.

With thanks to Liz Barling, Communications Manager, Food Ethics Council

1 www.foodethicscouncil.org/files/businessforum240108.pdf
2 Food Ethics 3(1) Spring 2008. See www.foodethicscouncil.org