- The role of water in food production
- The need to save water
- Changes in water sourcing practices
- Barriers to saving water
This factsheet looks at actual water use throughout the food and beverage supply chain.
For information on the amount of water 'embedded' in the production of a product, see the ‘Embedded Water in Food Production’ factsheet.
The role of water in food production
The food and beverage industry is a large consumer of water because it is a vital resource during production and processing. It is used across the sector to wash, clean, blanch, peel and cut food. It is used in mixing, steaming, freezing, heating and boiling food, and in canning and bottling plants. It is used in general food preparation and is considered essential to ensure the hygiene of food both in industrial environments and households.
Annual water use in a range of industries
| Sector || Annual water use – millions m³ (tonnes)
|Food and drink processing
|Paper and board
|Hotels and restaurants
|Plastic and rubber
|Textiles and leather
Source: Defra 2007
The table below gives an overview of food and beverage sectors that are particularly heavy users of water. Unsurprisingly these sectors mainly produce liquids.
Water use by specific sectors of the food and drink industry
| Sector || Water use –
millions m³ (tonnes) per year
Source: Defra 2007
When analysing water use by product, which is closer to the principle of embedded water, it can be seen that significant amounts of water are used per tonne of product, particularly in the fresh produce processing sector.
Water usage in the fruit and vegetable processing sector
| Products || Water use
m³ (tonnes) of water used per tonne of product
||6 – 9
||5 – 8.5
||3.5 – 6
Source: Biffa 2004
The need to save water
The UK has less water available per head than any other EU country barring Belgium and Cyprus, which is a key reason why the UK’s water supply is relatively expensive.
The cost of water to UK businesses grew by nearly 8% in 2006/07 and is likely to continue to rise. Ofwat announced in December 2004 that all water costs would increase by more than 20%, not including inflation, over the subsequent five years. As a result, businesses would be wise to address their levels of water use and resources.
The UK food and beverage manufacturing sector has an annual turnover of about £70 billion, and water consumption costs the sector just 0.5% of this. But on this scale, a 20% reduction in water use would nonetheless save the sector in excess of £60 million a year (Source: FISS, 2006).
Changes in water sourcing practices
Over the past decade there has been a decrease in mains water use by the food and beverage industry and an increase in private abstraction from boreholes and river water. This is due to rising water costs and the need to secure ongoing water supplies and quality.
Sourcing of water in the food and beverage industry
Source: Defra 2007
There has also been an increase in on-site treatment of wastewater effluent within the industry. This can be attributed to the higher prices levied by water utility companies for this service, as well as the Environment Agency’s enforcement of tougher discharge consents to surface water.
There are currently two main parliamentary acts covering wastewater legislation – the Waste Resource Act and the Water Industry Act. The first covers water management provisions, including pollution and offences, while the latter is concerned with discharge consents and charges. Since 2001 the Environment Agency has taken control of the discharges that affect some areas of the food and beverage sector.
Barriers to saving water
Due to the large variations in water use across the food and beverage sector, setting targets for water reduction is complex and difficult to monitor. Targets for individual sub-sectors might be a more realistic approach, but even so there are many barriers that make it difficult for the industry to implement change. The Food Industry Sustainability Strategy (FISS) Champions' Group on Water report, published in May 2007, identified the following barriers:
- A lack of data to enable conclusive economic decisions
- A lack of resources, time and budget
- Uncertainty about financial benefits
- Product quality issues
- Safety and hygiene issues
Despite these barriers the FISS Champions' Group on Water said it believed water use reduction could be encouraged if affordable tools and technology were available. It also believed that benefits in terms of positive publicity and improved reputation would make water use reduction an attractive proposition to companies.
In response to growing pressures on water supplies, the FISS Champions' Group on Water has challenged the food and beverage industry to reduce its water use by 20% by 2020 against a 2007 baseline, excluding water that is intrinsic to a product.
Waste reduction body WRAP has taken on the responsibility for helping the industry reduce water usage via the provision of free consultancy advice. WRAP says that it is possible for businesses that have not taken any previous action to reduce water usage by 30% through low to no-cost initiatives. For those that make further capital investment this can increase to 50%.
Related internet links:
WRAP's Federation House Commitment
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