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Corporate Water Abusers Should Not Be Trusted As Stewards of the World's Water

Large corporations have convened to talk about reducing their "water footprint" but the real stakeholders have been left out.
 
 
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The unsustainable and consumptive practices of industrialization that have escalated over the last one hundred years have brought us to a crucial tipping point. We are facing a water crisis of monumental proportions, further exacerbated by pollution, climate changes and population growth. Two billion people now live in water-stressed regions and unless drastic action is taken by the year 2025, two-thirds of the world's population will experience water scarcity.

It is therefore not surprising that many major corporations that produce products through manufacturing processes that are inherently water intensive and polluting have mounted a campaign to position themselves as stewards of the world's water. The Corporate Water Footprinting Conference taking place in San Francisco, California today is an example of such hypocrisy.

Many of the companies involved in the conference are food and beverage companies, many of which use large amounts of plastic to market their food products. Each 2.2 pounds of PET plastic requires just under 78 gallons of water to produce. How will that consumption of water figure into their water footprints? Likewise, how will Con Agra, a major producer of processed food, account for the water used in producing the agricultural crops present in many of its products?

Any genuine attempt to reduce water use should begin with an assessment of the need for the products being manufactured. That means going beyond the use of water in an isolated manufacturing process and actually performing an assessment of the products being produced. It also means doing a full life cycle analysis of the water used, from the production of all components to the product's ultimate disposal.

Agriculture accounts for 70-80 percent of the nation's water use. This water is withdrawn and lost from local environments as it is guzzled up by the industrialized production of crops and livestock. Furthermore, industrialized agriculture often pollutes water supplies from run-off tainted with toxic pesticides and fertilizers.

Similarly, every year, 30 trillion gallons of water irrigate U.S. cropland. In the 18 U.S. states that are dependant on irrigation, about 70 percent of the stream and river water has been depleted. In the western and southern regions of our country, about 60 percent of irrigation water is from surface sources. The rest comes from underground water, which rain replaces at less than a 0.1 percent annual rate.

The production of corn, a hidden ingredient in much of the world's processed food thanks to the food industry's heavy reliance on corn oil and high fructose corn syrup, is a good illustration of industrial agriculture's hoggish ways with water. A major commodity crop, farmers pour about 500,000 gallons of water on each acre of corn annually. That amounts to about 75 gallons for one pound of corn -- an unsustainable level of water use.

Animals raised for meat further drain world water resources and contribute to polluted waterways. Take for example Dean Foods, one of the sponsors of the footprinting conference. The largest milk processor in the U.S., it controls nearly nearly 40 percent of the U.S. milk market, peddling its product under 50 different brand names. Given that dairy operations consume an estimated 50 to 200 gallons of water per cow per day, those processing for Dean could be using as much as 580 million gallons of water every day.

In terms of environmental stewardship, they don't fare much better. Most large dairies in the West use water to flush manure out of barns and into manure lagoons. This is an extremely wasteful method of manure management. A typical 1,000-cow dairy using a flush system generates between 50,000 and 75,000 gallons of liquid manure each day.

 
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