by Rebecca Smithers
The hidden amounts of water used in manufacturing food and drink products should be made known to customers, according to lobby groups
Food and drink products should carry a new label to give consumers more information about their "water footprint" – the hidden amount of water used in the manufacturing process – two health and food lobby groups will recommend this week.
More transparency is needed about the huge volumes of water used to produce food, which most consumers are unaware of, said the joint report by the Food Ethics Council (FEC) and the health and food group Sustain.
It is calling for the proposed new label to reflect good practice, by taking into account the extent to which some companies and manufacturers are already working to use water in ways that are fair and environmentally sustainable.
Water scarcity is now a fast-growing sustainability problem across the world, the report says, with the amount used to produce an item far greater than the water contained within it. For example, one cup of fresh coffee needs 140 litres of water to produce while the production of one kilogram of beef requires 16,000 litres of water. In order to understand how to reduce our use of water, we need to measure this "embedded" or "virtual" water, the report says.
Generally, higher value crops such as sugar and vegetables are more water-intensive than cereals, and meat and dairy is even more water-intensive.
The report's co-author Tom MacMillan said: "Public awareness of water scarcity remains low. In the UK, citizens are rarely exposed to the direct effects of severe water shortage and cannot readily see the links between their purchases and water shortage in other countries. Water use is not reflected in the price of the final product."
MacMillan said the labels would not involve "litres per kilo" stickers, but should reflect the practise of good water stewardship – whether companies are working hard to use water in ways that conserve it, use it efficiently and are environmentally sustainable.
The information could be incorporated into a wider sustainability label that covered fair-trade and the carbon labelling scheme pioneered by the Carbon Trust, he said.
The UK's high level of water dependency will be questioned separately in a report on food security out tomorrow from the Commons environment, farming and rural affairs committee.
The FEC/Sustain report acknowledges the government's concern about the issue, and notes that: "Defra is concerned by the high level of UK water dependency both for future UK food security and because of the pressure caused by UK imports on the water resources of other countries."
Completely agree with the sentiment. The problem is that carbon labelling is beginning to become standardised but the same is not yet true of water.