Water footprint of beer more on the farm than in the brewery

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Source: WWF International

The total water involved in producing beer is overwhelmingly used on the farm rather than in the brewery, according to a report presented to World Water Week by major brewer SAB Miller and leading global environment organization WWF. Water footprinting: Identifying and addressing water risks in the value chain evaluated the water footprints – a way of understanding water use through the whole value chain – of SAB Miller beers produced in South Africa and the Czech Republic.

Better understanding the quantity, efficiency and geography of water use is enabling the two organizations to understand the impacts of water use, improve water management and work with communities and governments to protect watersheds. The new report reveals that in South Africa, the total water footprint is equivalent to 155 litres of water for every 1 litre of beer such as Castle lager and Carling Black Label, with the vast majority of water use (98.3%) associated with crop cultivation, both local and imported.

For Plzensky Prazdroj, SABMiller’s Czech operation which produces Pilsner Urquell – the original pilsener beer which provided the blueprint for the majority of the world’s commercial beers - agriculture is again the most significant component; accounting for over 90% of the total water footprint.

However, the overall water footprint of Czech beer production is significantly smaller at 45 litres of water to every 1 litre of beer, with the differences due mainly to a greater reliance on irrigation in South Africa and the proportion and origin of imported crops. In comparison with other beverages, beer’s water footprint is relatively small, with a recent Pacific Institute study finding that coffee, wine and apple juice all have water footprints more than three times that of beer.

However, the water footprint figure itself does not give the whole picture. More important is the context - where the water is used, what proportion of the area’s total water resource it represents, and whether water scarcity creates risks to the environment, communities and businesses now or in the future..

“The water footprints of SABMiller’s beers in South Africa and the Czech Republic are the first detailed corporate water footprints to be published and are progressive in the way they examine the impact of water use within these countries,” said Stuart Orr, WWF’s freshwater footprint manager.

“Most important is that this information is now used to ensure that their business partners – particularly farmers – are encouraged to use water more efficiently.” In South Africa, SAB Ltd is working with barley farmers to improve irrigation and yields, and with WWF the company is now considering how to develop this further to protect the watersheds within which it operates.

“Water footprinting enables SABMiller to understand which parts of our supply chain might face water scarcity, or poor water quality, in the future, and means that we can plan now to deal with these future challenges,” said SABMiller head of sustainable development, Andy Wales.

“We will build on our existing partnerships with WWF in South Africa, Colombia, and Honduras to create further local watershed protection projects to reduce risk whilst protecting the environment”.

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