From: , Worldwatch Institute, More from this Affiliate
Published May 23, 2008 07:59 AM

Conserve Water Through Food Efficiency, Report Says

As food prices escalate and water scarcity extends worldwide, the best solution to both issues would be a global reduction in wasted food, a new international report says.

Inefficient harvesting, transportation, storage, and packaging ruin 50 percent of food, according to the report, which was released last week by the Stockholm International Water Institute, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Water Management Institute. Add up how much food consumers simply throw away, especially in developed nations, and a whole lot of water is being wasted as well.

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If government, industry, and civil society worked together to improve efficiency, wasted food could be cut in half by 2025, the report says. Water conservation recommendations included advanced technologies to capture more rainwater for agriculture, incentives for consumers to waste less food, and benchmark standards for industry to reduce water use in the entire food chain.

The water experts decided to target the food sector because agriculture requires 80 percent of the world's water resources. With populations set to grow in the coming years, and as developing nations eat more meat and dairy, water demand is expected to also surge. "It's likely we'll need two times the water by 2050 than what we need today. The challenge is to reduce the amount of water we need today," said David Molden, research director at Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute, in a press conference.

In the developing world, wasted food is mostly attributed to harsh climate conditions and crop-eating pests or organisms. Agricultural productivity could double, the report says, if farmers adopt existing water conservation technologies, such as small dams that supply rainwater run-off during times of drought.

Post-harvest food losses, which in Africa range from 25 to 50 percent, can be reduced through proper storage and transfer facilities, the report states. In addition to investments in silos, "processing of the products, to add value and keep freshness," would better preserve food resources, says Virginia-based Millennium Institute president Hans Herren, who is a World Food Prize laureate, when commenting on the report.

The report called for businesses to minimize wasted water during food processing and transportation by setting benchmark standards. Industry should also create labels that state how much water each product requires, said Molden, a report lead author. "If industry can demand a banana has a certain shape or a tomato has a certain color, why not say something about how much water it takes for farmers to produce those crops?" he said.

As the world suffers a burgeoning food crisis-grain prices rose 80 percent between 2005 and 2008-more attention is being dedicated to food waste. Waste in the developed world is particularly high. According to a 2001 study by the University of Arizona, Americans were throwing away three times as much food then as they were 20 years prior. A study released this month by the U.K. government said more food is being wasted there, too, costing the country 10 billion pounds ($19.6 billion) each year.

The international water report estimates that households in developed nations are wasting as much as a quarter of their food. "Very few people know about the water consumption related to the food that they eat," said Jan Lundqvist, a researcher with the Stockholm International Water Institute. "With increasing competition, increasing prices, it's now a very auspicious moment to try to push this type of message."

But Anders Berntell, the Stockholm International Water Institute's executive director, suggested that a public relations campaign may not suffice. "If a family can afford to throw away 25 percent of the food they eat, maybe the price is too low," he said.

Worldwatch Institute staff writer Ben Block can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org

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