Driving water use efficiency in the agri-food supply chain

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Climate change is making water one of the biggest risks to the food industry. As such the food industry is under tremendous pressure to act, with the high profile reputational risks of taking water away from other uses (such as we are seeing in Cape Town) to balance against the operational worries regarding security of supply, and the very real prospect of yield penalties due to lack of water. But what can be done to improve resilience to water scarcity in agri-food supply chains? 

Driving water use efficiency in the agri-food supply chain

This article discusses what food businesses can do to understand how and where water is being used in their supply chain, and more importantly, be able to identify where targeted initiatives can make the biggest impact.

When it comes to sustainable agriculture, water is at the top of the list of key priorities. Current estimates indicate that 70% (FAO, 2016) of the world’s fresh water is used in agriculture. Changing climate and increasing demand for water from agriculture, industry and urban areas means about 40% of the global population now live in water scarce areas – and this number is set to grow. Water is the single most important thing for life, both animals and plants (i.e. without water, crops will not survive). As such, agriculture is caught in a roundabout of problems when it comes to water, as the biggest consumer of water and also first in line to fall foul at times of water scarcity.

Cape Town has been a high profile case of water scarcity in recent months. Water availability has reached an all-time low, following the worst drought in a century. It is edging nearer to Day Zero when their reservoirs will be near empty and taps in the city will run dry. With the need to sustain the four million residents of Cape Town, the water available for agriculture (currently accounting for 40% of Cape Town’s water) is starting to reduce as it is diverted to the city (Sustainable Brands, 2018). What impact will this have on agriculture in the region? South Africa is not alone in experiencing this, countries in almost every region of the world suffer from water scarcity from the USA to Australia and India. 

As demand for food increases the need for water in agriculture will only rise, placing even more pressure on this increasingly valuable resource. Food companies, whose supply chains rely on the majority of the world’s water, ought to be paying attention. And the good news is that many are. Global food brands are starting to understand that through engaging with their supply chain, they can be a powerful and constructive force for scaling the efficient use of water, especially at the farm level where there is most to be gained.

How are food businesses engaging with their supply chain on water use efficiency?

The first step is to prioritise sourcing locations in terms of water stress.

Water risk varies by geography. If a food business knows their sourcing locations (whether this be regional or specific grid coordinates of a grower) they can connect this information with existing water stress indicators (most notably WRI aqueduct) to identify sourcing locations at increased risk of water stress. This can aid companies in focusing any water management strategies in areas of greatest risk.  When we are dealing with expansive supply chains it is important that limited resource is well spent. This process can help a company to focus on specific priority geographies, which present the greatest water risk.

Figure 1   WRI Aqueduct water stress map

Next, we need to better understand baseline water use efficiency.

Crops need water to grow and if their needs are not met, yields will suffer. Therefore it is clearly not efficient to simply turn off the taps. What we can do is make sure that growers are putting the optimum amount of water on the crop (through scheduling), and make sure that it is being applied as efficiently as possible (through system maintenance and targeted application). ADAS help food businesses understand where their greatest opportunities are to improve water use efficiency at the farm level. The basic process is set out in figure 2.

Figure 2 Understanding water use efficiency (Images sourced from

Modelling crop water requirements

It is possible to calculate the crop water requirements and irrigation requirements based on soil, climate and crop data, combined with understanding the practices taking place on farm.  This information can be used to estimate crop water needs and irrigation usage at a farm level, right up to national/supply chain level for a specific crop.  At the finer level it is then possible to calculate the impact of changing practices on water usage in order to develop strategies that will cost effectively deliver reductions in water usage. 

Modelling water used to grow the crop

We can start to build a strategic view on crop water requirements across your supply base, but this is only part of the puzzle. We also need to model how much water was actually used. In order to drive this data needs to be collated on irrigation practices such as conveyance management, system type and scheduling practices to really begin quantify the size of the prize (i.e. the opportunity for reducing water use without negatively impacting the yield of the crop).

Why adopt a modelled approach?

  • A globally consistent approach of modelling of crop water needs.
  • It is rarely feasible to measure the actual water usage on farms all over the world. By taking a modelled approach we are able to take a sample of farms across your supplier base of farms grouping those in similar environmental conditions and scale it up to represent to all farms in that region.
  • Modelling enables us to understand the potential to reduce water usage without affecting yields. We can model the effects of specific interventions such as a change in irrigation method from sprinkler to drip systems. By doing this we can understand which interventions will be most effective at maximising water use without negatively impacting yields.

How will your business benefit?

Focus strategy where it is needed most: Identifying areas under greatest water stress and prioritising action.

Model the impact of improvement programmes and help inform the business case: Highlighting interventions which will improve water use efficiency without negatively impacting yields.

Start to capture improved efficiency over time: Measure the water use before and after intervention or change of practise to quantify the impact of these changes.

Report improvements against sustainability targets: Being able to see real change and measure progress against targets for improved water efficiency in line with Courtauld Commitment 2025 and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

ADAS provides insight and solutions to businesses within the food and beverage industry. We support our clients to develop and implement sustainable sourcing, risk management and resource efficiency strategies, generating cost savings and building business resilience. Our long history of engaging with the agri-food industry ensures we understand the different commercial drivers across the food chain, from farm to consumer.

For more information on how ADAS can help improve water use efficiency in your agricultural supply chains please contact Emily Mason or Sarah Wynn.


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