For more than two decades, ChileCarne, an organization that brings together and represents the main industry exporters, and Asprocer, which represents pork producers from the Metropolitan to the Araucanía Region, have been working on the challenge to improve water management in their various processes. They have operations in nine of Chile’s main basins, each with its own circumstances and restrictions regarding water use, treatment, and disposal. The challenge has ranged from measuring usage, reducing it, and becoming more efficient, to recirculating and returning used water back into the system. Today, 50% of what is extracted is used for production.
For the white meat production sector (poultry and pork), water is an essential resource, both for the vital needs of animals, as well as industrial processes, facility cooling and cleaning, worker hygiene, and disinfection. Therefore, over 20 years ago, the sector decided to start assessing its water consumption, detailing volumes and sources in order to focus on its management, treatment, and redistribution. In concrete figures, these steps mean that after 10 years, the white meat industry uses 55% less water per kilo of meat produced. In other words, if water consumption was 11.366 liters per kilo of meat in 2011, today it is 5.09 liters per kilo.
“Since 1999, when the sector signed its first clean production agreement, the focus was put on saving water and producers started moving towards sustainability. Real awareness and management began at all farms. To improve cleaning efficiency, power washers replaced the traditional hose. At the barn and farm level, a technological improvement was made to nipple drinkers. The traditional ones were replaced with more advanced nipples that reduce water loss to the very minimum, helping to keep beddings dry and reducing cleaning needs at that level. Then, we started measuring to learn how much water we were actually using for cleaning or specific processes, and we adapted to better technologies,” explains Daniela Álvarez, ChileCarne’s Sustainability Manager.
According to the First Report of the Chilean Ministry of Public Works’ Water Working Group for 2020, water consumption has risen in recent years because of the country’s demographic and economic growth. Water usage amounts to 4,900 m3 per second, i.e., 166 billion m3 a year. The agricultural sector is the largest consumptive water user in Chile, with 72%, followed by drinking water, industrial, and mining use, with 12%, 7%, and 4%, respectively. The remaining 0.7% is related to the livestock sector, and 4.5% to consumptive use in electricity generation.
To reach the 576,000 tons of pork produced in Chile every year, a total of 8 million m3 of water are currently taken from the basin (87% groundwater, 12% surface water, 1% drinking water distribution system). However, only 4 million m3 are actually used in meat production (50% of what is taken). The remaining 50% is mainly used for cleaning, which then goes to advanced treatment plants. Part of it is returned to the basins using circular economy processes, thus allowing for the fertilization of 5,000 hectares of corn per year, which then returns to the production process as feed for the pigs. Another part of the treated water is recirculated in the same facilities for washing pens.
In the case of poultry, water consumption is lower because the animals are reared on sawdust beds. Therefore, water use for cleaning rearing pens is minimum and done only with spraying equipment (mist) after each cycle, which is very efficient. At the same time, processing plants have state-of-the-art technology for water treatment and its subsequent use for irrigation or return to surface or ground bodies of water for later use.
It should be noted that the entire process of reducing water consumption has always been supported by both Asprocer and ChileCarne, ensuring clean production and sustainability agreements for the industry. “The trade associations have always been the ones looking for possible improvement measures. Many times, one company implements good practices and we have the duty to replicate them in the others. Our role is to make sure that improvements are not isolated. Companies often have their own challenges and developments, but our role is to make sure they are replicated by organizing expert panels and sharing successful experiences with different technologies and management,” Álvarez says.
Currently, these challenges are much easier to address and solve thanks to the Chile Conscious Origin Program, which standardizes best practices for various productive sectors and allows producers and companies to certify their compliance with all environmental, economic, and social requirements. In turn, when using the platform, producers can assess their level of compliance with specific requirements from suppliers or other markets. “In a world where sustainability has many components and aspects, this is a tremendous breakthrough and guidance for producers and consumers at the global level,” concludes ChileCarne’s representative.