Food production is water intensive. This ‘virtual water’ both represents a challenge and an opportunity, since it can be exported worldwide, writes Lars Hvidtfeldt.
Lars Hvidtfeldt is Vice-President of the Danish Agriculture and Food Council. He contributed this commentary in exclusivity for EurActiv.
"Every day the world’s population increases by 150,000, raising demand on food and further increasing the pressure on the Earth’s resources. Plants and animals are thirsty – hence food production is water intensive. This ‘virtual water’ both represents a challenge and an opportunity, since it can be exported worldwide.
By 2030 the EU predicts a 40% global water supply shortage. Against this backdrop, EU environment commissioner Janez Potočnik has presented a new strategy – a Blueprint to safeguard Europe’s waters -, which will be discussed at the Environment Council on Monday 17 December in Brussels.
Unfortunately many countries have an inefficient record of water use and production in areas with drought.
In Northern Europe, water is plentiful
In comparison with other regions, the climatic changes will have limited effects on agricultural production in Northern Europe and Denmark, where we are expecting more water and a longer growing season as a result of the warmer climate.
Moreover, in a global perspective, our farmers and agro-industries are resource efficient in terms of water use. Whilst it takes some 650 litters of water to produce a ton of wheat in Denmark, the world average is about 1800 litters, and within the EU, the amount of water to produce one litter of milk in Denmark is a third of what it takes in Spain.
During the past 25 years, the international food company Danish Crown has reduced water consumption by two thirds, whilst increasing production, and during the past five years, the global dairy company and a co-operative Arla Foods has been able to increase production by 10% and reduce water consumption by 10% in absolute terms.
Exporting virtual water worldwide
In the future, Denmark has the potential to play an even more central role in world food production than today, where the country is the world’s third largest food cluster. By producing and exporting more food, farmers and agro industries can play a pivotal role in securing a more sustainable water use within the EU and globally, by exporting the virtual water contained in our products to areas facing water scarcity.
In view of the global food supply chain and the increased pressure on Earth’s water resources it is important that production takes place where there is water, and where water is used most efficiently. Therefore the notion of sustainable intensive production ought to play a pivotal role in the debate on the EU’s future water policy, and during the Environment ministers’ debate on the Water Blueprint in Brussels on Monday. "