Earth’s biological resources are no longer sufficient

According to various sources, as of January 22nd, 2021, there were about 7,840 million inhabitants globally, and the figure is expected to reach 10,900 million in 2100. Thus, exponential growth is linked to an exaggerated increase in the consumption of the Earth’s biological resources, taking its regenerative capacity beyond the limit.

The production and consumption models that we have been promoting for decades are so unsustainable that, to maintain them, we would need about 1.75 planets. According to the latest report on the Planet Overshoot Day – prepared by the NGO Global Footprint Network – this year, the day came on July 29th.

 

Sustainability: What is the Earth Overshoot Day?

This date marks when humanity has used all the Earth’s biological resources available for the year. This calculation is based on biocapacity (biological regeneration capacity) and ecological footprint (demand for resources).

The main factors behind the phenomenon are the 6.6% increase in the carbon footprint (compared to last year) and the 0.5% decrease in global forest biocapacity, caused – to a large extent – by the increase in deforestation in the Amazon. In other words, for this year, in just 210 days we depleted the natural capital that we had for 365 days. 

According to the Global Footprint Network, This year’s overshoot day marks the highest natural resource deficit since 1970. The truce brought by 2020 with the cessation of economic activities and the limitations on consumption resulting from the pandemic was an only slight relief.

Simply put: our planet is no longer sufficient to meet our consumer demands, and we are far from achieving a truly sustainability-oriented economy. We spend more than we have as a company with overdrawn finances. 

 

What is Chile doing about it?

Despite efforts in environmental policy, electromobility, and the development of the Agtech industry (digital technology applied to agriculture), Chile was the first country in Latin America to deplete its natural resources this year. Moreover, it did so 42 days before the global date mentioned above. 

According to Matías Asún, director of Greenpeace in Chile, “if Chileans were the planet’s population, natural resources would have run out on May 17th, and it would take a second and even a third planet to sustain the type of life that we have built“.

The outlook is worrying because the advancement of the country’s ecological overshoot is already a trend: in 2017, it was May 24th, in 2018, it was June 2nd, and in 2019 it was May 19th. The phenomenon responds to the growing consumption of single-use plastics and the amount of water required by the country for its mining, fruits, and salmon exports. 

In addition, there is forestry production and coal generation of 40% of the country’s electrical energy.

Ecuador will be the last country in the region to exhaust its resources in 2021 by December 7th. And globally, the first nation affected by this phenomenon in 2021 was Qatar, while the last to do so will be Indonesia.  

And what about the United States? One of the main powers at the global level is also one of the least sustainable: if the world’s population lived like North Americans, we would need five planets to survive

 

What can we do to solve the problem?

The Global Footprint Network notes that by progressively delaying the Earth overshoot date by 4.5 days, we could be back to living within limits by 2050; this is a complex task if we consider consumption trends, but essential to conserve nature and consolidate more resilient ecosystems. Among the actions with the most significant impact, we find: 

 

Reforestation 

Increases biodiversity, helps eliminate carbon dioxide, and acts as a barrier against flooding in coastal areas, being key to promoting the planet’s regeneration.

Specifically speaking of the solution to the Earth Overshoot Day, reforesting an area the size of India – for example – would delay the date by eight days, according to the NGO behind the report.

 

Energy-saving and electromobility

As we saw earlier, the high carbon footprint is one of the root causes of the problem. Of course, reforestation helps reduce it, but we can optimize it by deploying energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions. 

Specifically speaking of electromobility, electric vehicles achieve 95% energy efficiency and emit up to 3 times fewer greenhouse gases than combustion vehicles. 

If most of the global fleet were of this type, the impact would be significant. However, consider that only in Chile transport is responsible for 20% of total emissions. 

 

Reduce food waste and optimize production 

40% of food grown globally is wasted. This phenomenon is worrying, not only because paradoxically 690 million people in the world suffer from hunger, but also because it contributes to 10% of greenhouse gases and accounts for a significant waste of important resources such as deforestation and water since 70% of the essential liquid extracted on the planet is used in agriculture. 

We must start working to minimize this problem throughout the entire supply chain. Farmers, for example, can do a lot in this regard if they manage to increase the shelf life of fruits and vegetables so that they reach the warehouses and the consumer’s table in optimal consumption conditions and fruit waste is not created.

A high-impact solution in this area is PolyNatural’s natural coating technology. 

These natural coatings are manufactured with 100% organic components of vegetable origin and ensure the best performance of each fruit. Thanks to this solution, the company has saved more than 157,041 cubic meters of water, and in 2020, it avoided the fruit waste of 273.6 tons.

Of course, we must not limit solutions to reducing food waste. We must also make production more efficient. 

For example, in the meat sector, we can think of other alternatives for the Agtech industry, such as in-vitro beef, which, according to a report by CE Delft, can reduce the use of land by 95% and the associated water use by 78% compared to livestock activity. 

 How we exploit, distribute and consume resources is no longer sustainable. Any action to reverse this situation will help us achieve real change and secure a planet for future generations. 

Agri-food Tech: towards a sustainable agri-food sector

Food production and consumption account for ⅓ of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. It is known that the environmental impact of the food sector is also related to the waste of freshwater since 70% of the world’s extractions are used for agriculture purposes. These sustainability issues have enabled companies to understand the importance of agri-food tech or agri-food technology. 

This concept relates to using technology to optimize agricultural products’ production and distribution chain, reducing the harmful effects of exploiting non-renewable natural resources and the emission of polluting gases. 

Under the International Environment Day framework, which was celebrated at the beginning of June, these are some essential facts and figures about the environmental impact of the agri-food sector and the available solutions for companies to improve their sustainability levels.

Fruit industry and agribusiness: environmental impact in figures

Increase in global temperature

It is estimated that emissions related to the food production and supply system will likely cause the world to exceed the 1.5 degree Celsius limit in 30–40 years, bringing the planet closer to the 2-degree limit by 2100.

This is one of the main risk factors for the agri-food industry. Proof of the above is found in the fact that, since 1961, world agricultural productivity has been 21% lower than it could have been without climate change and variations in global temperature.

Emission of polluting gases 

Agriculture, the fruit-farming industryand other land use activities account for 27% of greenhouse gas emissions.

A large part of these emissions results from methane from enteric fermentation and manure handling as compost. 

Methane is far more damaging than carbon dioxide when it comes to driving global warming (approximately 25 times more powerful), with effects that would be only noticeable 20 years from now if the agriculture and fruit farming industry fail to make lasting changes.

In addition to the above, agriculture accounts for 80% of the total emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), mainly due to the application of both manure and synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizers, which are added to the soil or left on pastures.

Finally, there are the polluting effects coming from supply chains, which are estimated to account for 18% of all emissions related to the food industry.

Water use

From 70% of water extractions (tied to agribusiness), about 40% is lost due to inadequate irrigation systems, evaporation and poor management. 

The direct result of the above is that the water utilized, which could be reused, remains “scattered” in the environment, so it must be reacquired and redistributed through processes involving time, energy, and money. Nor can we underestimate the effects of water misuse on people’s well-being and how food safety is jeopardized due to the above. 

Crops with the most significant environmental impact in this regard are those that consume high amounts of water for every pound of product. For example, during apple production, between 200 and 13,000 gallons of water are needed per ton of fruit, while the production of pears requires 1,400 to 6,300 gallons, also per ton.

Then, during processing, packing, freezing, or fermentation (depending on the sales format), apples consume about 500,000 gallons of water per ton and pears about 400,000 gallons.

Food waste

Another important phenomenon is food waste and its relationship with the agri-food industry. It is estimated that ⅓ of all food produced is wasted; This relates to people’s consumption habits and cultural aspects but is also tied to the lack of corporate new technologies to extend the product’s useful life during storage and distribution. 

In fact, 40% of food is discarded right upon gathering in low-income countries, but before reaching people’s homes, usually due to a lack of adequate infrastructure or methods.

Food loss directly contributes to climate change since if food waste ends up in a general container, it will end up in a landfill. There, food will decompose and create greenhouse gases, including methane.

In addition to roots and tubers, fruits and vegetables have the highest waste rates of all foods, with a quantitative global waste per year of between 40 and 50% of total production.

Sustainable agriculture: the importance of finding sustainable solutions

It is not possible to imagine a world in which the population stops growing. On the contrary, the 2019 review of the United Nations World Population Prospects (WPP) predicted that the world population would increase from 7.7 billion in 2019 to 8.5 billion in 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050, and 10.9 billion in 2100.

A consistent relationship has been established between population density and environmental impact, so an exponential increase in population means that countering climate change will be more difficult. However, the demand for food will increase as the world’s population grows, so it is critical that agriculture provides for 49% of the additional food needed by 2050.

Therefore, agribusiness, fruit farming, and the food sector, in general, have a critical responsibility: to reduce their impact through sustainability practices ensuring supply and maximum production with no risk to water reserves and environmental balance. 

Agri-food technologies stand as a long-term sustainable solution to improve productivity without increasing dependence on water resources or expanding the volume of land used for agribusiness. The use of drones, robots and data analysis allows agribusiness to optimize production efficiency and crop quality, minimizing environmental impact and reducing the production involving risks.

Here we find some examples of how technology can be used to develop more efficient food production and distribution systems:

Smart water saving systems

Using Internet of Things (IoT), multiple devices can be synchronized within a perimeter to collect data and convert them into actionable information. For example, the use of sensors in irrigation systems enables automation and optimizes water consumption. 

Decrease in the use of fertilizers and chemical products

The use of AI for the diagnosis and management of pests or diseases is an especially useful trend in agribusiness, reducing the use of fertilizers and other chemicals on the soil. For example, there are satellites and drones for remote sensing of threats or irregularities on the land. 

Use of natural coatings for fruits

This natural coating technology enables an extension of the useful life of fruits, controlling dehydration and microorganism growth. Thus, products can stay on the shelves for longer, reducing food waste and the emission of polluting gases. 

For example, PolyNatural’s natural coatings are made from 100% organic, plant-based components and are manufactured based on custom parameters to ensure the best performance based on the type of fruit. 

Using natural coatings helps do away with synthetics and petroleum-derived components for a final product that aligns with sustainability and environmental responsibility trends. 

The Shel-Life technology used by PolyNatural has saved more than 157,041 m³ of water. In addition to the above, the waste of 273.6 tons of fruit was avoided during 2020, thanks to the Shel-Life application.

Water footprint in the agrifood sector

Water is a scarce resource, and the agrifood industry is one of its more significant users. Food demand is expected to rise in the coming decades. Hence, taking measures to use water efficiently is a crucial requirement to secure our future food supply. Furthermore, climate change is expected to stress food production and water systems in even greater ways, so analysing sustainable indicators, such as the water footprint, is fundamental to develop a more resilient agrifood industry.

The term water footprint indicates the amount of freshwater used in any given activity or process. The Water Footprint Network developed the concept and according to them,

“The water footprint is a measure of humanity’s appropriation of fresh water in volumes of water consumed and/or polluted.”

The water footprint can be measured for a single product or a single process. For example, it can be measured for a single shirt or, or complex processes such as growing wheat or gas to heat residences, for an entire company, or a country.

Furthermore, this measurement can even be done for a specific aquifer or river basin or globally. The water footprint analysis considers both direct and indirect water used for a product, process, sector, or company; this includes water consumed and polluted during the full production cycle, from the suppliers to the end-user.

The invisible but measurable use of water

Additionally, virtual water is water that is hidden in the products, services, or processes. Virtual water is also called embedded water or indirect water; this type of water use is usually unseen by the end-user, but it is still part of our everyday water consumption. For example, water is used to prepare risotto or a loaf of bread (direct use); however, water is used in many steps along the value chain before it reaches our cupboard, including growing the grain, milling it, water used to produce the fuel needed for processing and transportation, all of these constitute virtual water uses.

The three components of the water footprint

Water footprints are composed of three different types:

  1. Green water footprint comes from precipitation; it is stored at the soil’s root zone and is evaporated, transpired, or incorporated by plants. This type is particularly relevant in horticultural and agricultural products.
  2. Blue water footprint has been sourced either from surface or groundwater resources. Domestic water use, industry and irrigated agriculture have a blue water footprint.
  3. Grey water footprint is the amount of fresh water needed to assimilate pollutants, so after being treated, it can meet quality standards. In the case of agriculture, this relates directly to runoff.

Water footprint in the agrifood sector

Agriculture is one of the economic sectors that use more water. On average, agriculture accounts for over 70% of all freshwater withdrawals globally. From the water used in agri-food, 78% corresponds to green water footprint, 12% blue, and 10% grey. In the US, around 80% of the country’s water use is dedicated to agriculture. In some western states, agricultural water use can even be higher than 90%.

When analyzing agricultural products, in general, animal products have a larger water footprint than crop products. On average, the water footprint per calorie of beef is 20 times larger than for starchy roots or cereals.

Among primary crops, the global average water footprint goes up from sugar crops (roughly 200 m3/ton), to vegetables (300 m3/ton), roots and tubers (400 m3/ton), fruits (1000 m3/ton), cereals (1600 m3/ton), oil crops (2400 m3/ton) to pulses (4000 m3/ton)(UNESCO-IHE, Institute for Water Education).

However, it is important to notice that this is the world average; the water footprint changes between countries and regions and each specific product. Coffee, tea, cacao, tobacco, spices, and nuts have a relatively large water footprint.

Additional data, from the UNESCO-IHE, Institute for Water Education, show that for animal products, the global average water footprint goes up from chicken egg (3300 m3/ton), cow milk (1000 m3/ton), chicken (4300 m3/ton), goat (5500 m3/ton), pig (6000 m3/ton), sheep (10400 m3/ton), to beef cattle (15400 m3/ton). The global animal production water footprint is divided into 87% green water footprint, 6% blue, and 7% grey.

When comparing water requirements for different types of proteins, milk, eggs, and chicken are about 1.5 times higher than those for pulses. When we compare with beef, a gram of meat protein has a six times larger water footprint than pulses.

Avocado’s water footprint

Avocado consumption is expanding worldwide, accompanied by greater demand, production is also rising. The production of avocado typically occurs in tropical, subtropical, and Mediterranean climates, where water consumption tends to be high, droughts frequent,  and commercial-scale plantations usually require supplementary irrigation. Avocado’s green water footprint ranges from 31 m3/ton in Saint Lucia in the Caribbean to 4,494 m3/ton in Beja, Portugal. In contrast, its blue water footprint ranges from 0 m3/ton in Grenada and some Guatemala regions to 2,295 m3/ton in the north of Chile. Nonetheless, among the top avocado-producing countries, Mexico has the largest water footprint.

Banana’s water footprint

Banana production requires a large and frequent water supply to ensure good productivity and quality. As a worldwide average, bananas have a green water footprint of 600 m3/ton, while it’s blue water footprint is 97 m3/ton, and its grey water footprint is 33 m3/ton. Studies have calculated that about 99% of the water footprints correspond to the agricultural production phase, so it is key to have well-working irrigation systems. In countries such as Costa Rica, where no irrigation is needed, all the water footprint is green; in other cases, such as Peru, where there is a high dependence on irrigation -and the systems are inefficient-, 94% of the water footprint is classified as blue.

What can you do to reduce your food water footprint?

You can take several steps to reduce the water footprint embedded in your food choices; among them are eating less meat, eating more unprocessed products, reducing your food waste, and eating locally.

Water scarcity, a complex problem beyond shortages

 

Water scarcity can be related to availability due to physical shortage, or lack of adequate infrastructure, or access due to institutions’ failure to ensure a regular supply. Water scarcity already affects the inhabitants of every continent. UN data reveals that over 2 billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress, and 3.2 billion people live in agricultural areas with high water shortages. The Middle East and North Africa is the most water-stressed region on the world. But even in countries with low overall water stress, there are regions affected by this situation.

Ways to reduce water stress

  • One of the main ways to reduce water stress is to increase agricultural efficiency. This can be done by using seeds that require less water, improving irrigation systems, by using high-precision watering techniques rather than flooding the fields.
  • Investing in grey and green infrastructure, pipes and treatment plants, and healthy wetlands and watersheds can work together to increase water quantity and quality.
  • Wastewater is not waste. By safely treating and reusing wastewater, we are actively creating ‘new’ water.
  • Reducing food loss and waste, all the food produced requires significant quantities of water to be grown, processed, and transported. Almost a third of all the food produced is wasted; every kilogram that we can divert from the garbage constitutes litres of water saved. Among the methods to reduce food loss is to treat them with protective materials, such as coatings, to make them last longer. PolyNatural offers Shel-Life, a natural coating that reduces rot incidence and dehydration.

Climate change and a growing population will make producing enough food for everyone a challenge in the near and far future. Growing our food efficiently and sustainably is critical to ensure that enough fresh water will be available for everybody.  Among the key strategies that your company can take to reduce their water footprint is to ensure that their products last for a longer time, helping in that way to reduce food waste and increasing their sustainability indicator.