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Water Sustains Life

No commodity seems to be more top-of-mind in the American consciousness than fuel. The media reports its price swings so frequently that I know the numbers by heart--today gas is around $3.75 per gallon today in the Albany, NY area, where I work and reside, and crude oil just hit a nine-month peak of just over $106.

Justifiably, we stress continuously over the price of petroleum, yet we seem to have forgotten another precious, indispensable and dangerously depleting resource: WATER. And without this life-sustaining substance, nothing else matters.

Like crude oil, water prices have surged in the last 12 years, doubling or tripling in many parts of the U.S, according to a recent USA Today study of 100 municipalities. Think of what that does to living expenses and business costs. And like crude oil, which is still threatened despite the current production boom here in the U.S., water is getting less and less by the minute.

Many Americans could soon realize this, since water shortages due to high demand and climate change have become a realistic possibility in New York City, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and San Diego--where approximately 40 million Americans reside--as well as most of California and breadbasket states including Nebraska, Illinois and Minnesota, reports Columbia University Water Center's new study, "America's Water Risk: Water Stress and Climate Variability." The vast majority of our food is produced in these water-stressed regions.

Analysts are constantly reminding us that new discoveries of 'black gold' can't keep up with declining production from established sources and rising car production, especially in Asia. Likewise, we need to raise awareness when it comes to water scarcity.

WATER SCARCITY IS EVERYWHERE

Approximately, 2.6 billion people--more than a third of the world's population--don't have access to clean water or live in water-stressed areas. And it is expected that water demand will exceed supply by 40 percent by 2030. Alan Hinchman, Global Market Director of Infrastructure at GE Intelligent Platforms, reported this disturbing statistic at a recent conference held for North American business leaders in the food and beverage industry. A representative of GE was called on since they are now one of the world's leading suppliers of sustainable water and process systems solutions. water-scarcity-index

Hinchman also said that municipal water loss in Canada, Mexico and the United States ranges between 20 and 50 percent. Think about this: "For every 1000 gallons of water used - between 250 to 1000 more gallons were pumped and lost by leaking pipes," Hinchman said. This helps explain why North Americans have the largest water footprint in the world (currently 2060 gallons per person a day, according to nature.org). So not surprisingly, Hinchman warned, "North America has a huge water infrastructure bill coming due."

OUR WATER DEBT IS IMMINENT

How imminent? Hinchman didn't paint a pretty picture. Thirty percent of all major U.S. cities will be facing water crises in the next three years. Many are already there and arguing with their neighbors over water rights. Currently, Texas and Oklahoma are going at it over the four-state Red River and the dispute reached the Supreme Court. And the Great Lakes Compact, which involves eight states, is full of contentious issues between its signatories. So businesses must change the way they operate and consume resources right now. And even if water is available. Costs have gone up over 200 percent in the last 10 years and are likely to go still higher.

"Competition for water is going to become very intense very soon," Hinchman predicted. And the perils and problems of an inadequate or substandard water supply are upon us right now, though many are simply ignoring the issue.

WHAT THE NUMBERS MEAN

Ironically, most companies have sophisticated and effective sustainability programs in place. Yet water management seems to be one of their least obvious areas of immediate concern. It seems however that a growing number of companies are still locating in water-challenged areas, even though the increased demand and reduced availability of quality water is raising its cost and the risk of productivity disruptions.

Obviously, food and beverage companies are highly dependent on quality water--as a raw material, for growing crops and to create and process their products. So water impacts our long-term costs, the quality of our products and our survival.

None of us can afford to waste water anymore. "Many civilizations have been crippled or destroyed by an inability to understand water or manage it. We have a huge advantage over the generations of people who have come before us, because we can understand water and we can use it smartly," notes award-winning journalist Charles Fishman in his ground-breaking book, "The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water." And everyone can achieve this goal. For example, between 1980 and now, farmers have reduced their water use by 15 percent, but produce 70 percent more food. That's a 100 percent increase in farm-water-productivity, notes Fishman.

HOW TO CREATE A WATER-USE PLAN

The bottom line is that we're quickly going from a world where water is relatively free to one where it will cost a lot. The government will have to figure out the infrastructure issues, but we have to streamline our own processes and make smart water decisions right now. Like innovation, which is an entire business practice area rather than just a single, or even series, of new solutions, it must become an integral and deep part of an overall business strategy. Many experts say there's room in every step of the production process for improvement.

Here are some examples of how to accomplish this:

1. Determine the true cost of the water you use, starting with a comprehensive analysis of current water use, and allocate it more efficiently. A case in Australia illustrates this; water treatment giant Yarra Valley Water just had the British natural capital consultancy Trucost assess the real environmental costs of the water it uses, and found that one cubic meter of water actually ranges from ten cents to $15 AU in areas of extreme scarcity. Yarra Valley is now using this information to evaluate its new infrastructure investments, procurement strategies and product portfolios.

2. Carefully manage your supply chain. Most companies' direct water use pales in comparison to their embedded water use, which means the amount of water required to produce every aspect of a product from start to finish. For example, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, to make a single slice of bread, single cup of coffee or grow one pound of corn it takes 10, 35 and 110 gallons of water, respectively. According to a GE Water Facts video, it takes 2,700 gallons of water to make one hamburger. The supply chain is a primary focus of water stewardship activity for companies that include Ikea and Levi Strauss & Co. Levi has reduced water by 50 percent since 2005 through sustainable cotton cultivation.

3. Minimize water use in your production process. At Tetra Pak, their Design for Environment (DfE) program considers every aspect of product design, production and operation to reduce water loss, also offering this as a competitive advantage to their customers. For example, their OneStep technology for processing of aseptic milk reduces water utilization by 60 percent and the Tetra Therm pasteurizers use cutting-edge intelligent automation to drive resource efficiencies that slash water consumption by up to 80 percent compared to older versions.

4. Increase water recycling and reuse. Manage water quality through responsible wastewater collection, treatment, recycling and disposal, and monitor activities that can potentially cause water quality problems. Reusing wastewater can reduce the potential impact of discharging pollutants into water sources, and/or reduce the demand on potable water supplies.

5. Design Water-Savvy Plants and Products. Sustainable design must go from 'emergent' to 'entrenched' right now. Any product design process must start with a total life cycle analysis that gauges its water impact. This means taking into consideration the entire supply chain, manufacturing and distribution process and how it will be recycled and/or disposed of to optimize its water metrics. Car manufacturers such as Nissan now chart and operationalize their water consumption to minimize water use on their lines. And many detergent makers, such as Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive, have begun this process by switching to compact and concentrated formulas that use much less water.

6. The ISC-Audubon initiative called Conservation Landscapes for America is aimed at getting residential, business and municipal landscape managers and owners to practice conservation landscape management. Conservation landscape management is aimed at reducing all inputs, including water, improving landscape beauty and health, while saving money.

All of these and other efforts can help us better manage this precious resource, but are just at the starting point. Action must be taken and that action must start now, and by everyone.

Please join ISC-Audubon today so that we can continue to work toward the conservation of our water resources!

SustainAbility Newsletter Archive Article (random)

Conventional vs. Organic

Organic Food

The word "organic" refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat. Organic farming practices are designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution. Farmers who grow organic produce and meat don't use conventional methods to fertilize, control weeds or prevent livestock disease. For example, rather than using chemical weedkillers, organic farmers conduct sophisticated crop rotations and spread mulch or manure to keep weeds at bay.

Organic or not? Check the label The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established an organic certification program that requires all organic foods to meet strict government standards. These standards regulate how such foods are grown, handled and processed. Any farmer or food manufacturer who labels and sells a product as organic must be USDA certified as meeting these standards. Only producers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic foods are exempt from this certification.

If a food bears a USDA Organic label, it means it's produced and processed according to the USDA standards and that at least 95 percent of the food's ingredients are organically produced. The seal is voluntary, but many organic producers use it.

Some people say they can taste the difference between organic and nonorganic food. Others say they find no difference. Taste is a subjective and personal consideration, so decide for yourself. But whether you buy organic or not, finding the freshest foods available may have the biggest impact on taste.

Products that are completely organic — such as fruits, vegetables, eggs or other single-ingredient foods — are labeled 100 percent organic and can carry a small USDA seal. Foods that have more than one ingredient, such as breakfast cereal, can use the USDA organic seal or the following wording on their package labels, depending on the number of organic ingredients:

  • 100 percent organic. Products that are completely organic or made of all organic ingredients.
  • Organic. Products that are at least 95 percent organic.
  • Made with organic ingredients. These are products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. The organic seal can't be used on these packages.

USDA OrganicFoods containing less than 70 percent organic ingredients can't use the organic seal or the word "organic" on their product label. They can include the organic items in their ingredient list, however.

You may see other terms on food labels, such as "all-natural," "free-range" or "hormone-free." These descriptions may be important to you, but don't confuse them with the term "organic." Only those foods that are grown and processed according to USDA organic standards can be labeled organic.

Organic foods meet the same quality and safety standards as conventional foods. The difference lies in how the food is produced, processed and handled. You may find that organic fruits and vegetables spoil faster because they aren't treated with waxes or preservatives. Also, expect less-than-perfect appearances in some organic produce — odd shapes, varying colors and perhaps smaller sizes. In most cases, however, organic foods look identical to their conventional counterparts.

Most organic food costs more than conventional food products. Higher prices are due to more expensive farming practices, tighter government regulations and lower crop yields. Because organic farmers don't use herbicides or pesticides, many management tools that control weeds and pests are labor intensive. For example, organic growers may hand weed vegetables to control weeds, and you may end up paying more for these vegetables.


Fast Facts:

  • Don't confuse natural foods with organic foods. Only those products with the "USDA Organic" label have met USDA standards.
  • Buy fruits and vegetables in season to ensure the highest quality. Also, try to buy your produce the day it's delivered to market to ensure that you're buying the freshest food possible. Ask your grocer what day new produce arrives.

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References and Sources used in this issue of SustainAbility Newsletter Include:

Audubon International
www.auduboninternational.org

The International Sustainability Council
www.thesustainabilitycouncil.org

The US Environmental Protection Agency
www.epa.gov/compost

Organic Farming Research Foundation
www.ofrf.org

United States Department of Agriculture
Natural Resources Conservation Service
www.nrcs.usda.gov/feature/bacyyard

Natural Resources Defense Council
www.nrdc.org

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A Coalition for Good - Spreading the Seeds of Sustainability

ISC-Audubon is a coalition of non-profit organizations and initiatives that include The International Sustainability Council (ISC), Audubon Lifestyles, Audubon Outdoors, Planit Green, Broadcast Audubon, and the Audubon Network for Sustainability. 

Funds generated through memberships and donations are used to provide fruit & vegetable seeds, wildflower seed mix, and wildlife feed & birdseed to urban and suburban communities around the world. These seeds are used by communities to establish fruit and vegetable gardens, bird and wildlife sanctuaries, and for the beautification of urban and suburban landscapes by creating flower and native plant gardens.

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