food retailers are not thinking enough about water

A rapidly growing global population and the associated industrial development have long been cited as Malthusian threats to fresh water supplies. But it is now increasingly clear that the additional problems of climate change and peak oil (the carbon cost of water) are worsening the situation. Climate change is making weather patterns more unpredictable and farming more precarious. Peak oil is making pumped and irrigated water more expensive. The combination of demographics and climate change is creating a perfect storm for fresh water supplies that threatens increasingly fragile food supply chains.

NGOs like WWF and Waterwise in the UK have warned of the unsustainable amounts of virtual or embedded water needed to grow our food – 3,400 litres for the average UK citizen’s daily food requirement – and argued that when countries like Kenya, Egypt or Australia, who are using more water than they have, export water-intensive food to the UK we are exporting drought to them and creating future instability.

Food retailers, who sit at the apex of the food supply power structure in the UK, are only at the start of their thinking about water although most are aware of the issues. All are installing water efficiency measures in new stores for financial and environmental reasons. However the majority do not consider they have a responsibility to act beyond their immediate operations. By the end of 2008 only two were working on water footprinting their supply chain. Only one was seriously thinking about water use by customers. A wide range of missing drivers were cited to explain the lack of action: the focus on carbon, the lack of a functioning price mechanism, the absence of customer concern, the complexity of methodologies and low government interest.

drought in India

The range of responses about future risks goes from those who see it as a clear threat to their business in the medium term that will have to be addressed, all the way to those who believe it will not be a threat and who say that anyway the price mechanism will sort it out if a problem does occur.

There has been little or no coordinated UK government policy in this domain and no real sense of urgency about water in relation to food supply, although there are signs that thinking may be changing on this. More research is needed to help all stakeholders understand the problem and to allow food retailers and their suppliers and customers to take the appropriate action. More negotiations are needed at the inter-governmental level to agree an international framework for pricing and/or water allocation.

If you would like to read more about these issues, then please download the following cuttingthecarbon report:

“What should a responsible food retailer look like in terms of water use and what are the implications for UK government policy?”