‘The role of water in a circular food system needs more attention’

Water-saving measures, responsible water use, recycling, but also handling changed water composition and levels must have a more prominent place in the future food system. This is what researchers from Wageningen University & Research say in the report ‘Wise with Water’. “The role of water in a circular food system is not currently receiving enough attention.”

In the report, the researchers call for joint action to pay more attention to the role of water in a circular food system. “This is a task for national, regional and local authorities and all actors in the food system.”

The report, which was presented last week, was commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Management and Food Quality. The report highlights the many roles water plays in life on Earth. These roles, which have been mapped with nine colors, are threatened by climate change, among other things, the researchers said. Due to persistent drought, the availability of water is no longer always self-evident, even in the water-rich Netherlands.

The Ministry of LNV will use the experiences from the report for both ‘LNV’s national policy and international efforts’, says Ralf van de Beek, MT member of the ministry’s directorate for Europe, International and Agro-Economic Policy. For example, the report serves as inspiration for input from LNV during the UN Water Conference, organized by the Netherlands, which will be held in New York in March 2023.

The project was coordinated by Adriaan Anthonis, senior researcher at WUR. H2O interviewed him earlier this year on the topic of the research, a future-proof food system that produces sufficient, safe and healthy food for everyone within the borders of the earth. He said: “Then you end up with a circular food system. To prevent essential, precious (fresh) water from running out, we must make water’s role in the food system transparent. Because only then can we take a critical look at what we do with the water, whether it can be done more efficiently, and whether we can use it more times.”

Wise with Water is about closing water cycles, at the regional and corporate level, according to the report. For the document, the researchers collected eleven ‘inspiring stories’ about reducing the water footprint of the food system. “These inspiring stories are necessary because our current water consumption is not future-proof,” the researchers write. “We hope they inspire others to build on this, or encourage the removal of barriers to scale-up.”

The people they spoke to are intentional or unintentional trailblazers (‘beacons in the transition’) who show how things can go wrong, what can go wrong, what can be encountered and what the major knowledge gaps are, according to the report . “Some are innovative, radical, think differently, and others know how to operate between the lines to change dominant structures and practices.”

The table above shows ‘some interesting beacons in transition’ | Source Clever with Water

Four themes
From the discussions, the researchers distilled four overall water themes that can ‘give direction’ to LNV’s political agenda: water availability, water quality, water management and water costs.

By elaborating on the four themes, the researchers make a number of observations:

  • Water quality is more than the absence of chemical and microbiological contaminants, and water is more than just a carrier of potentially pathogenic substances. Water acts as a building material, solvent, starting compound in numerous biochemical reactions, carrier of nutrients and thermoregulator. Water that may be unsuitable for drinking may actually be valuable in the food system. It requires new thinking with regard to “contaminated” water.
  • Rules and protocols for (livestock) drinking water supply and water purification make it difficult for entrepreneurs to experiment with, for example, using rainwater as drinking water and reusing nutrient-rich water.
  • A changed water management policy, such as more water retention in low-lying agricultural areas, can also lead to new or renewed (animal) health challenges.
  • Tap water is cheap in the Netherlands and therefore available to all citizens. A downside to this low price is that social entrepreneurs who offer solutions that reduce the water footprint often struggle with profitability. The transition to circular agriculture and a wiser use of water requires a solution to this problem.

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