Meat industry worst among food-based industries in terms of water management

New report says meat firms pollute groundwater and overuse water to farm their products

By Meenakshi Sushma
Published: Thursday 07 November 2019

The meat industry lags behind other industries within the food sector in terms of water resource management, a report published by a Boston-based nonprofit on November 5, 2019, has said.

“The global food and agri-business sector is worth $5 trillion and is operating within the world’s growing water crisis,” Feeding Ourselves Thirsty, published by Ceres, said.

“Over 70 per cent of the world’s fresh water is used to grow crops, feed livestock and process ingredients,” it added.

The report noted that meat production was one of the biggest polluters of watersheds globally.

The document cited the example of Smithfield Foods, a pork processor and producing company based in Smithfield, Virginia, United States. The company has been repeatedly accused of causing pollution of groundwater due to its lagoons (a pig waste collection slurry) leaching pig urine and excreta into the ground during rains.

This happened especially during Hurricane Florence in 2018 in North Carolina. But even before that, the company was dealing with lawsuits brought about by local residents over bad smells and potential diseases that were being caused by hog waste. The company has been ordered to pay $100 million in compensatory and punitive damages, the report stated. 

Similarly, the meat industry was also responsible for the runoff of nitrogen and phosphorous-rich fertiliser and manure into freshwater, the report said.

The report focuses on the evaluation of water risk management within the food sector. This includes industries working on agricultural products, beverages, meat and packaged food industries.

The report states that out of these four industries, meat companies lag behind others in terms of water management and reducing their impact on water resources.

The report has ranked 40 food companies on a scale of 0 to 100 points based on four categories regarding water management which include governance and strategy, direct operations, manufacturing supply chain and agricultural supply chain.

This being the report’s third edition, a comparison between the previous reports has been established in the 2019 report which states that the food sector on the whole has improved its management of water risk, as the average score rose 22 per cent since 2017, and 52 per cent since 2015.

The packaged foods and beverages industries continue to outperform the agricultural products and meat firms. However, agricultural product companies improved their score more than any other industry since 2017.

Growing and processing the food we eat is a thirsty business, consuming more than 70 per cent of the world’s increasingly strained water resources,” Brooke Barton, vice-president of innovation and evaluation at Ceres and co-author of the report told the media.

“The meat industry remains the lowest performing food sector in this regard but it will hit them in the pocket if they continue to pay lip-service to water resource issues linked to climate change, says Andy Coyne, food correspondent at data analytics firm Global Data told the media. 

“Two of the largest meat businesses in the US reported a significant increase in feed costs as a result of the 2017-2018 drought in Argentina. This is not an issue that is going to go away,” he added.

“The food companies are among the first to feel the financial heat of climate change, as rising average global temperatures and shifting weather patterns make fresh water scarcer and agricultural production more volatile. It is in their own best interest to take action,” the report added.

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