Water use in the agri-food sector
Water is a basic necessity for human and ecosystem health and necessary for the long-term ecological and socio-economic resilience of our food and farming systems. As the agri-food sector bears a large share of responsibility for water consumption and contamination it must show leadership in conserving and protecting water resources.

Current trends in the agricultural sector place significant environmental pressure on water resources through:

  • Water pollution: The use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers continue to deteriorate water quality with raising the costs for society. Efforts to reduce the contamination of ground and surface waters from agricultural sources remain a constant challenge. While some progress has been achieved poor management practices continue to have a negative impact on water quality in Europe.
  • Water abstraction: The over-pumping of groundwater exceeds the ability of the earth to replenish levels by at least 160 billion cubic metres each year. The agricultural sector accounts for around 24% of total water abstraction in the EU, rising up to 80% in some regions.

Organic farming, however, offer solutions to many of the negative effects that agriculture places on water.


Best Practice: Multi-stakeholder organic initiatives to improve water quality

How is organic farming supporting sustainable water management?
Sustainable water management is a fundamental part of organic production. This ranges from the use of agronomic practices such as crop rotations, the use of green manure, catch and cover crops - shown to reduce nutrient leaching and run-off into water bodies. The use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers results in huge environmental cost as a consequence of water pollution by intensive agriculture. Moreover a strong emphasis on soil structure and increased humus quality makes organic production well placed to enhance water-holding capacity, resulting in an increased resilience to extreme climate events such as heavy rainfall and droughts.

What are the key policy tools and instruments on water organic farming can support?
Organic farming practices are well placed to support the implementation of key EU laws designed to protect and enhance water bodies. Key EU laws include:

  • Nitrates Directive (1991): aims to prevent nitrates from agriculture sources polluting ground and surface waters through the promotion of good farming practices
  • Water Framework Directive (2000): aims to ensure 'good status' for all EU ground and surface waters
  • Sustainable Pesticide Use Directive (2009): aims to reduce the risks and impacts of pesticide use on people's health and the environment
  • Common Agricultural Policy (2014-2020): aims to support the long-term viability of farming and rural areas. The Common Agricultural Policy has the potential to advance sustainable solutions for environmentally friendly agriculture and high quality food production.


Are EU policy tools and instruments supporting better water management in practice?
Ensuring the good ecological status of surface waters and the sufficient availability of clean water remains a challenge in many EU Member States, despite policy efforts. A 2014 report by the European Court of Auditors entitled - The Integration of EU water policy objectives with the CAP: a partial success - found not only significant delays in implementation in many Member States, but also that improvements in sustainable water management across the Union are insufficient to reach the overall goals and objectives related to agriculture set out in the Water Framework Directive. Similarly the process regarding the implementation of the national actions plans under the Sustainable Pesticide Use Directive has yet to demonstrate clear and ambitious goals and objectives to confront the adverse effective of chemicals in food and farming on human health and environment.

The sustainability credentials of organic farming in water management demonstrate that organics can be part of the solution.


Best practice: Water conservation and recycling in organic beverage processing

How is organic processing supporting sustainable water management?
Many organic businesses including private organic standards for processing strive to increase their environmental performance and lead the way in sustainable water management.

Currently the EU Organic Regulations does not define specific requirements regarding water management at the processing level. The European organic movement welcomes the inclusion of environmental performance criteria - including water management indicators - for processors and traders (excluding micro-enterprises). Monitoring environmental performance should be implemented using a broad range of measurement systems adapted to the specific situation of the operations.

As part of IFOAM EU’s roadmap towards further sustainable growth of the EU organic sector - under the EU Organic Regulation review - the organic movement is committed to ensuring that water management indicators for processing form an efficient and effective package of environment performance requirements to drive advanced sustainability in the organic food chain.

What are the key policy tools and instruments on water that organic processing can utilise?
A number of policy tools and instruments relevant to organic processors - exist at international and EU level to measure sustainable water management:

  • Guidelines for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Assessments (SAFA) developed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation at the international level. These guidelines establish a common framework for assessing the sustainability of food production. As a globally applicable framework which assesses the management of freshwater resources with an emphasis on quantity and quality - amongst other sustainability themes - the SAFA guidelines can help to facilitate greater transparency of environmental performance operators in the food chain.
  • EU Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) developed by the European Commission at EU level.  Under EU Regulation (EC) No 1221/2009 it sets out voluntary tools for organisations to participate to. The EMAS has a strong focus on total annual water consumption amongst other criteria.