Water availability is a growing concern for food manufacturers

by Keith Nunes
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Nearly lost amid the sharp rise in energy and other commodity costs is water availability, a significant issue that food manufacturers and especially agribusiness will have to face in the near future. As recent droughts in the Southeast and in other parts of the country have underscored, the water supply is not limitless and water-intensive businesses like food and agriculture will be well served to develop sustainability programs and public/private partnerships before cost and even availability become significant problems.

It may seem odd to address the topic of water availability after record floods inundated the Midwest in June and a line of tropical storms and hurricanes pounded the Gulf and Atlantic coasts this month. But the reality is that expanding demand for water from urban populations and industrial growth is stretching America’s water supplies.

The issue of water availability has attracted the federal government’s interest. In August, the U.S. Geological Survey revealed a strategy to study the nation’s groundwater supply as part of the government’s effort to address increasing competition for water.

The results of this study, which does not currently have a specified ending date, may have a major impact on where food manufacturers locate future facilities. It also may have an impact on the amount customers pay for access to water supplies.

Water availability is also not just a domestic issue. In June the International Water Management Institute warned countries may not be able to feed all of the world’s population in the coming decades unless water supplies are managed better. Dr. Colin Chartres, director general of the Institute, said growth of the world’s population, which is predicted to increase in total from 6 billion to 8.5 billion in the next 20 to 30 years, means the world will have to "find at least a further 2,000 to 3,000 cubic kilometers of water for irrigated and rain-fed cropping." He added, "This is no easy task as it is about 33% of what is currently used in many countries already water scarce."

Pressures to conserve may become a particularly vexing problem for segments of the food industry that rely on intensive irrigation and use water to clean and sanitize products and equipment for food safety-related reasons. Much like energy conservation, there are easy initiatives companies may implement to ensure immediate savings. They may be as simple as making sure pressure hoses do not leak, installing water meters to ensure water is not wasted and conducting facility audits with the intent of improving water usage.

But the scope of the water availability problem will require more elaborate and innovative solutions. Speaking at the close of the 2008 World Water Week conference, held in Stockholm, Sweden, at the end of August, Lars Thunell, executive vice-president and chief executive officer of the International Finance Corp., said governments and businesses worldwide see a strong economic incentive to work as partners to ensure a sustainable supply of clean water. Partnerships between the public and private sectors may help prevent the specter of a "food, fuel and water crisis in an increasingly populated world," he said.

Many market analysts have warned for years about what may happen if America continued to rely on foreign oil as its primary source of fuel. The volatility that has roiled U.S. markets may be directly traced to the slow response to this energy issue. A similar scenario is unfolding around water availability and it is advisable companies and industries develop plans to address what may be another significantly disruptive force.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, September 16, 2008, starting on Page 9. Click
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