It’s hard to overstate just how important water is to the food industry. Without water, even the most drought-resistant crops fail to grow, manufacturing plants fail to function, and the food industry as we know it grinds to a halt.
To help keep up food production during periods of drought, farmers and other food industry professionals will often pump groundwater. However, according to a recent study, groundwater is already being depleted across the globe at a much faster rate than aquifers are being replenished and “some of those wellsprings may be much smaller than previously assumed.”
With the world’s population set to climb to 8 billion by 2025 and then 9 billion by 2050, our high demand for food – and the water that helps produce it – is set to grow even higher.
How are food industry professionals tackling this growing problem, and how are they making food production more water-efficient at every stage of the supply chain? Here’s a quick look at some of the most innovative solutions on the table.
1. Reducing Water through Emerging Farming Techniques
When it comes to water use, the thirstiest point in the supply chain occurs right at the farm where crops are grown. It’s here that inefficient irrigation systems can cause water loss through evaporation, or where runoff can often enter nearby water sources – making them unusable in the long term.
To help combat these problems, food production studies students at Wageningen University are investigating new methods of growing crops. One pioneering solution is to grow crops on top of soils rather than in them. So far, results have shown that this innovative approach can help reduce nutrient leaching, which, in turn, could help reduce pollution levels in nearby water sources.
2. Alternative Ingredients Promote Sustainable Water Use
Growing crops on top of soil isn’t the only out-of-the-box solution being investigated. As many food industry professionals are quick to point out, some crops are much “thirstier” than others. Growing one apple, for example, can take as much as 70 litres of water. Growing 100g of vegetables, on the other hand, might take only 20 litres. That’s why opting for less water-heavy crops can make a significant difference in water usage.
One innovative new crop might not even be grown on land – or with fresh water – at all. At EMFS’ partner Wageningen University, food masters students are also investigating seaweed as a potential food source. Growing seaweed holds many key advantages, chief among them the ability to be grown in salt water. As Dr. Sander van den Burg of Wageningen University points out:
“Seaweed extracts nutrients directly from water… Unlike with the cultivation of maize or sugar beet, no polluting fertilisers are used. Furthermore, seaweed cultivation has relatively few negative effects on biodiversity. All of this makes seaweed a very interesting commodity.”
3. Transport Can Add to a Food Product’s Virtual Water Footprint
Transport can also be a big indirect water-use culprit in the food industry. That’s because transportation has the potential to add to a product’s “virtual water” use. “Virtual water” is the amount of water that is needed to grow, transport, and package a product. That water is no longer visible at the end of the supply chain, but it still plays a very real role on how sustainable a product is in the long term. For example, the average meal in America travels 2,400 kilometers before reaching the plates of consumers. Now, we’re often used to thinking of food miles when we calculate a product’s carbon footprint, but that distance has an impact on water use too. According to some estimates, it takes approximately 3 to 3.5 gallons of water to create one gallon of oil.
As a result, the distance a product has to travel, and which transportation methods are used during that process, could dramatically impact an item’s final “water footprint”.
In Beijing, for example, “Currently, 90% of the vegetables for the more than 20 million consumers in Beijing are brought in at night from outside the region.” To help reduce that figure, city planners have partnered with Wageningen University to plan a 400 hectare Eco Valley park, which will help meet some of this food demand.
Students in food technology training understand that while water is a significant ingredient in many foods, new production processes can sometimes reduce the amount necessary for optimal results. For example, adding bacterial proteases to wafer biscuits, which are made primarily from wheat flour and water, not only reduces the necessary water required but also the gluten levels and baking time.
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