The global agri-food industry— valued at $6 trillion— is one of the most highly exposed to water risks, with water stress impacting many of the world’s largest food-exporting countries. Paradoxically, despite mounting perils to both food and water security stemming from water depletion, pollution, and climate-induced droughts, the food and agri-business sector is a chief contributor to the problem, accounting for a substantial 70% of all freshwater withdrawals. As the tides of environmental consciousness continue to shape consumer choices, it is no wonder that water stewardship is set to become one of the top food trends for 2024, as per the insights of the Whole Foods Trends Council.
With the theme ‘Water is Life, Water is Food. Leave No One Behind,’ United Nations World Food Day 2023 emphasized the critical role of water in supporting life and its interconnected relationship with food. In a video message delivered on October 16th, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that “The sustainable management of water for agriculture and food production is essential to end hunger, achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and preserve water for future generations.”
The conscientious and sustainable management of water resources, focusing on equitable, environmentally responsible, and efficient utilization of this vital resource is urgently required— now more than ever. Here are some ways that food businesses will be engaging in water stewardship in the year ahead.
Water extraction from unconventional sources
A number of water brands have been extracting water from alternative sources, such as air and fruit by-products.
The extraction of water from plant by-products, not only reduces water used but also helps to reduce food waste. Aqua Botanical, a brand out of Australia says that it is able to extract 600 liters of water from one ton of carrots that would have otherwise been wasted. Using patented water technology to harvest the aqueous liquid found in fruits and vegetables, Aqua Botanical creates clean, filtered water containing 74 plant minerals.
Water vapor present in the atmosphere represents another valuable source of fresh water. In the United Arab Emirates, Hawa water is filtered and mineralized water sourced from humidity in the air. In Brazil, Amazon Air Water is harvested from water that is produced by the trees of the Amazon rain forest. With a typical bottle retailing at $83, profits from the sale of Amazon Air Water are used towards sustainable development projects.
Sustainable and Regenerative Agriculture
According to S&P Global, around half of food and beverage companies globally have made public commitments to sustainable and regenerative agriculture, with 85% employing programs to reduce water consumption.
Regenerative agriculture plays a pivotal role in enhancing soil health, facilitating nutrient retention, bolstering natural resilience to environmental challenges, and mitigating erosion. This contributes to the conservation of water resources and the enhancement of ecosystem water quality, reducing the volume of water required for farming activities and decreasing harmful water and nutrient runoff from agricultural lands.
In September 2023, SAI Platform, a network comprising 170 major food companies dedicated to sustainability, unveiled a global framework outlining the transition to regenerative agriculture for food businesses.
Many mainstream food brands such as Unilever, Nestlé, McDonald’s, Danone, and General Mills have already committed their support for regenerative agriculture.
Restaurants with urban farms
Globally, many farm-to-table concept restaurants are turning to on-premises sustainable, pesticide-free, and closed-loop urban farms. Aquaponics’ closed-loop design circulates water between a fish tank and plant beds, with the plants benefiting from the nutrients provided by fish waste, while aeroponics delivers nutrients to plant roots via a fine mist, thus minimizing water usage.
In the United States, Gather in Omaha restaurant’s aeroponic urban vertical farm yields 3600 pounds of sustainably grown, pesticide-free leafy greens and herbs each year, requiring 95% less water than conventional farming, while Ohio-based, Asian-fusion chain Balance Grille sources its ingredients from its very own 8,600-square-foot, vertical, aquaponics farm.
At Haoma, Thailand’s first urban farm and zero-waste restaurant, herbs, plants and fruiting vegetables are grown on an on-site aquaponics farm. Haoma says that it conserves more than 150,000 liters of rain water per year which it uses for its aquaponics farm and recycles using Nordaq water filtration systems for its guests to consume as still and sparkling water.
Oyster, clam and mussel farming
Oysters, clams, and mussels (also known as bivalves) are stationary “filter feeders” that do not rely on external feeding, but sustain themselves by feeding on plankton and other small organisms naturally found in the water. These shellfish utilize close to no land or freshwater while playing a crucial role in enhancing water quality by filtering out surplus nutrients, and have the capacity to sequester carbon in their shells, making them a potentially valuable tool in the battle against climate change. According to a recent study funded by Sea Grant, if Americans were to substitute just 10% of their meat consumption with oysters, it would result in greenhouse gas savings equivalent to the environmental impact of removing nearly 11 million cars from the road.
Brands going plant-forward
Dietary choice has a significant impact on water footprint, with animal agriculture exhibiting a significantly greater water footprint than vegetables, grains, or legumes pound-for-pound. Food brands are reducing their water footprint by embracing a “plant-forward” approach— shifting their focus toward plant-based and plant-rich offerings.
Food brand, Hope and Sesame distinguishes itself by manufacturing sesame seed-based milk, boasting a considerably smaller water footprint compared to many other plant-based milk brands. This advantage arises from the fact that sesame cultivation demands significantly less water compared to other crops used in alternative milk production. Many traditional brands, such as Yoplait, are also expanding their product lines to include more plant-based options, such as the Yoplait Oui product line made from coconut cream.
Improving water efficiency
In recent years, water-use efficiency in operations has been at the fore of food brand sustainability strategies. At the Fairmont Marina Bay in Singapore, dining establishments use special dishwashers in high-demand areas, helping it to preserve a staggering 1.7 million liters of water in 2022. In a similar vein, Starbucks embarked on its own water conservation journey back in January 2020, committing to replenish or safeguard a substantial portion of the water used in green coffee production as a crucial facet of its long-term water strategy.
Water footprint in marketing
According to a study published in journal, Environmental Science and Pollution Research, the growing awareness and commitment among consumers to support environmentally responsible practices makes water sustainability a compelling selling point for businesses. And a number of food businesses have already begun following the trend.
Teaming up with the Swiss Eaternity Institute, German food brand Veganz has begun to feature its own eco-balance claims on the packaging of a variety of its products, while meat substitute brand, Quorn, markets its low water footprint on its website and via a variety of advertising platforms. One of Quorn’s social media posts reads, “Did you know the water footprint from producing Quorn mycroprotein is 30x lower than producing beef? Tasty AND good for the planet.” Quorn Net Positive Report (2022) says that Quorn has reduced its water usage per tonne of product by 36%.
According to Save the Water (2019), it takes approximately 25,000 liters of water to cultivate and manufacture a day’s worth of food for a family of four, thus contributing to the rapid depletion of limited water resources.
Escalating water scarcity represents a significant threat to global food and beverage production, and as a result, food and drink brands will continue to come under considerable pressure to embrace water stewardship and contribute to more sustainable and responsible food production practices in the months and years to come.