Drop-by-Drop: Water Footprinting for a Sustainable Food Supply Chain

Caroline Carson
Salterbaxter MSLGROUP

Risks associated with water – too much, too little and the quality of it – have been one of the biggest and most visible environmental and climate challenges of recent decades. As the Alliance For Water puts it, “Water is the primary medium through which climate change impacts will be felt by humans, society and the environment.” To underline its significance, the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Risks Report defined water crises as the top risk facing the planet over the next 10 years.

The agricultural sector is already the largest user of water resources, responsible for 70% of all global freshwater use. Pressures on use are set to increase still further as food demand increases alongside population growth and global dietary preferences shift to more water and energy-intensive meat and dairy-centric diets.

A risk with a potential financial impact of US$2.5 billion, according to the The Carbon Disclosure Project’s (CDP) Global Water Report. Supply chain resilience is threatened as increasingly globalized food value chains drive water extraction, use and discharge at every stage from field to shelf. Similarly, risks are emerging from the demand side with evidence that well-publicized droughts in California and Brazil are changing consumer purchasing.

Water is the primary medium through which climate change impacts will be felt by humans, society and the environment.
The Alliance for Water

What’s cooking?

In their third segment of sustainability reporting, Tyson Foods announced a 2020 goal of reducing water consumption by 12%.

Mapping water impacts across food supply chains is the first step. However, currently only 24% of companies disclosing water risk to the CDP include suppliers in their risk assessments. Recognizing the particular risk to the food sector, Nestlé’s and Grupo Nutresa are examples of companies embedding best practice water management into their supplier policies. Momentum to increase water footprinting in food supply chains will likely be aided by rapidly evolving best-practice guidelines and toolkits, such as those recommended by the Business Alliance for Water and Climate Change. Launched at the outset of the COP21 Paris negotiations, it includes a number of food companies amongst its founders.

Water crisis will be the top crisis facing the planet over the next ten years.
Source: World Economic Forum
Value of risks associated with water.
Source: CDP's Global Water Report

By demonstrating a statement of intent to analyze and share water risks, support footprinting standards and reduce water impacts across the full value chain, initiatives such as these may provide the business impetus and systems thinking required for food companies and companies from other sectors to identify and manage risk hot spots across their value chains.

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