Water shortage a hot topic at IFT 2015

by Monica Watrous
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IFT session explores issue of alternatives during severe drought
The planet's shrinking water supply was a hot topic at the Institute of Food Technologists' annual meeting and food expo.

CHICAGO – “One thing we know for sure is we can’t grow food without water,” said David Cotton, CEO of Flying Food Group. He was one of several presenters at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition speaking about the planet’s shrinking water supply and its effect on food production. 

David Cotton, CEO of Flying Food Group
David Cotton, CEO of Flying Food Group

“It doesn’t cost you anything to pour water on lawns and shrubs; it’s virtually free in California,” he said during a July 14 panel discussion at the conference. “Why does California have a problem? Because water’s too cheap.”

The statistics tell a grim story. A third of the world’s aquifers are losing water at an alarming rate, with one fifth of the global population living in areas where water is scarce. On top of that, the use of water has been growing at a rate twice that of the population increase in the past century, said Stephanie Mattucci, global food science analyst for Mintel, during a separate presentation at IFT.

“By 2030, we’ll only have 60 percent of the water we need to meet the needs of the population,” she said.

One-third of total food production occurs in high or extremely high water stress, and such crops as tree nuts, wheat, citrus fruits and sugar cane have been affected, she said.

“The agriculture industry is hit especially hard when it comes to water usage,” Mattucci said. “In fact, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the global freshwater withdrawals in the use of water.

“By 2050, the population is projected to reach 9 billion people, so that means we’re going to need to make a lot more food to feed all those people; however, it also means agriculture is going to rely on water a lot more to produce that food.”

But don’t panic just yet, she added. 

Stephanie Mattucci, global food science analyst for Mintel
Stephanie Mattucci, global food science analyst for Mintel

“It’s important to know even though we’re hearing a lot of about the water crisis right now, periods of dry spells and wet spells come and go, but we can learn from these times right now and go forward with responsible water management in the future,” Mattucci said.

Food scientists are addressing water shortage with such developments as drought-tolerant corn, said James Borel, executive vice president of DuPont Pioneer. Additionally, farmers today have greater access to data that may enable more efficient water usage.

“All of that is going to be important to get more productivity, more sustainability, and we need to do that all around the world,” Borel said.

Other regions of the world have coped with prolonged periods of drought with regulatory changes and innovation in technology. In the midst of its “millennium drought” between 1995 and 2009, Australia built desalination plants, pursued water recycling projects and changed its statutory water rights system to enable buying and selling of water access entitlements, encouraging a more responsible use of the resource.

Israel also has built desalination plants that are able to supply 35 percent of the water within the country, Mattucci said.

“On a global basis, you’ve really got to look at the countries that have dealt with this to figure out a much more efficient way to use water,” Cotton said. “There’s no reason why this can’t be solved. It takes a lot of political will, some change in lifestyles, and it is going to require either by the government or private industry major investments in water saving technology, but I really believe there is hope for that if we work collectively on that.”

Nestle zero-water manufacturing site
Nestle is transforming its plants to zero-water manufacturing sites, starting with the dairy facility in Jalisco, Mexico.

Several companies are exploring ways to manage water more efficiently. Some are making water footprint claims, similar to a carbon footprint assessment, or turning to more sustainable manufacturing models. Nestle USA, for example, recently announced plans to reduce water consumption by investing $7 million in new technology at five water bottling plants and four pet-care facilities in California. Nestle last year transformed its dairy plant in Jalisco, Mexico, into a “zero-water” manufacturing site, which extracts the water it needs from milk used to make dairy products. Construction is under way to convert the company’s Modesto, Calif., dairy plant into a zero water factory, too.

And Heineken saved $84 million in the past six years by using less energy and water, and aims by 2020 to further reduce its breweries’ water consumption from 3.9 liters of water per liter of beer to 3.5, and in drought-stricken areas, 3.3.

“Sixty-one percent of US consumers said they would rather companies improve their green practices than make a donation to a green organization,” Mattucci said. “Not only is it important to conserve your water for the environment, but it’s also important for the company’s image.”

Agricultural uncertainties may even bring more food production indoors, Mattucci said.

“We’ve seen an example in Japan where they’ve actually transformed the clean room of a semiconductor plant into a lettuce farm, so they’re able to control the light, the temperature of the water, everything about growing those plants in a very clean environment.”

And while such crops as almonds, wheat and olive oil are pressured by global water shortage, some ingredient alternatives may rise to the challenge of a drier planet. During her presentation, Mattucci named four ingredients that may provide sustainable solutions, or at least inspiration, in the wake of a water crisis.

Camel milk

Camel milk is being floated as an alternative to cow's milk
Camel milk is said to be lower in saturated fat than traditional cow's milk.

Describing beef as “one of the largest water hogs we have in our food supply,” Mattucci suggested an alternative to traditional cow’s milk in a centuries-old solution for desert dwellers.

“Camel milk is consumed in the Middle East and North Africa and a diet staple of the Bedouins, the nomadic desert tribe there, who believes camel milk has some healing properties to it,” she said.

While camel milk products are typically limited to the Middle East and Africa, a premium camel milk beverage called Camelicious is now available in the United Kingdom, and a company called Desert Farms is pioneering camel milk in the United States by supporting small camel farms in the Midwest.

“The company claims camel milk is an excellent source of calcium, protein, phosphorous and other minerals and is said to have lower saturated fat than traditional cow’s milk,” Mattucci said.

Algae oil

As a more sustainable substitute for olive or canola oil, algae oil may be produced in an environmentally controlled facility unlike conventional oil crops.

“Algae oil also has similar levels of healthy monounsaturated fats as well as low levels of saturated fat,” Mattucci said. “Another advantage of algae oil is that it has extremely high stability and a higher smoke point than olive or canola oil.”

Peanut milk

Almond production is doubly threatened by the drought in California, where 80 percent of the world's almonds are grown, and the colony collapse disorder befalling honeybees needed to pollinate almond trees.

Alternative crops may provide a solution. Peanuts, for example, are self-pollinating and have a lower water footprint than almonds. The National Peanut Board is developing a peanut milk concept, with similarities to almond milk, containing essential vitamins and minerals and a good source of protein.

Prickly pear cactus

Tolerant to high temperatures and low rainfall, prickly pear cactus is edible and contains essential minerals, antioxidants and dietary fiber.

“Because of its effectiveness of growing in very difficult climates, the FAO has looked at prickly pear cactus as a possible feed to replace something like alfalfa, which is very water-thirsty and one of the larger contributors to the large water footprint of feed.”

Prickly pear cactus has popped up in such products as sorbet, beer and juice. Cactus pad, or nopal, which is edible and high in fiber, is used in products manufactured in Mexico, including corn tostadas and green juices.

“We can see desert plants, in particular cactus, not only providing solutions for us, for example, feeding livestock, but also providing inspiration for new flavors and new products going forward,” Mattucci said.

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