Don’t let our water ‘leek’ away

After the carbon footprint we now have our water footprint to worry about as well. One of the less obvious consequences of Britain’s drift away from being a manufacturing nation and from our increased taste for fruits, vegetables and other foods sourced from wherever in the world they can be most economically sourced – is that apparently that we are exporting drought to large parts of the planet.

It is hard to imagine after the summer but Britain is the sixth largest importer of water in the world after Brazil, Mexico, China, and Italy with only 38 per cent of what we use coming from our own resources. What exactly does importing water mean? Well, it seems that the average household uses about 150 litres of water daily for washing and drinking, but we consumer 30 times as much in virtual water – water used in the production of imported food and textiles. Figures from WWF published in The Guardian newspaper suggests a single cotton shirt made in Pakistan for western markets will use no less than 2,700 litres of water.

We in Wales will clearly have to change our consumer habits like the rest of the developed world, if water shortages in the third world stimulated by our demands are not going to lead to starvation, conflict and mass population movement in the decades ahead. But surely there must be opportunities for as wet a place as Wales to make better use of its abundant resources of an increasingly valuable commodity. Surely now is the time for Wales to be looking to see which water-thirsty processes it can repatriate, though not in such a way as would waste that resource but instead use and re-use it in an environmentally and economically effective way.

The same Guardian article focuses on a factory run by the Albert Bartlett group in Glasgow which washes one in six of all the potatoes, carrots, parsnips and onions eaten in the UK, supplying two-thirds of all Sainsbury’s potatoes as well as other supermarkets. The company does not waste water, however, collecting rainwater and recycling it for further use.

The public now largely expects vegetables to come pre-washed in just this way so the question arises why plants of this sort have not (to the best of my knowledge) been established in Wales. Wales is as close to the main crop-growing areas as Scotland and closer to the main UK markets so surely this is a business we could be in.

Taking the argument further, it would also be interesting to know why Wales is not itself a much bigger producer of the popular fruits and vegetables now seen across Britain’s supermarkets. Adapting to climate change and taking advantage of polytunnels and other similar technologies, Dorset has become a centre for growing blueberries and Cornwall is now producing British tea. Large lorries frequently block the main streets of even the smallest towns delivering flowers grown and delivered from the Netherlands that could equally well be grown in warmer parts of Wales such as Pembrokeshire.

Horticultural production in Wales has, in fact, been in long term decline with fewer than 3,000 hectares now under cultivation for potatoes, field vegetables, small fruit and commercial orchards, compared with double that amount forty years ago. The dominance of the supermarkets with their centralised purchasing and packaging requirements and the consequent decline in local wholesale markets and retailing is the principal reason but the trends might now be more favourable as a report last year by ADAS Wales, the agricultural advisory service, pointed out. Transport costs may begin to make it less economic to transport fresh produce from one part of the UK to another and consumers in Wales, Scotland and Cornwall in particular express interest in buying locally.

We have made some recent strides in Wales – the Really Welsh Products company based in Llantwit Major has been a model in this respect, sourcing and marketing different types of vegetables no longer being grown in Wales under a Welsh brand. It is a rare example, however. Far too much of Wales’s agriculture is committed to livestock, a seriously inefficient use of water which requires crops to be grown first then fed to animals for conversion into protein. We have one per cent of British land devoted to crops and horticulture but one in four of all Britain’s sheep, and almost one in eight of Britain’s cattle.

Perhaps there are fundamental reasons why Wales will never be able to reduce even moderately its demand for vegetables and fruits from elsewhere in the UK (and abroad). The temperate climate of parts of West Wales and especially Pembrokeshire, coupled with abundant Welsh water resources, surely lends itself to much more experimentation into the types of popular modern fruits and vegetables that could be grown in Wales (as well as many other more staple vegetables we have stopped growing), creating employment, reducing the demand for imports and helping to stave off the drought we are now inflicting on the rest of the world, while at the same time helping us to cut our water and carbon footprint.

ADAS came up in its report with some recommendations on what might need to be done in investment and facilities and what changes need to be made in training and techniques but there is little evidence as yet that its action plan has begun to kick in (though I would dearly love to be corrected on this). To the lay person it looks like another opportunity going begging.

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