|Water for Agriculture & Nutrition|
Nutrition is a staple of human existence, and water is essential for the production of food through agriculture – the cultivation, irrigation and processing of crops, and the maintenance of livestock. Globally, 70% of all water is used in agriculture, but this figure can be as high as 90% in developing countries.
The global population is expected to reach 9 billion by the year 2050. Obviously as the population grows, there is a concomitantly higher demand for water as well as food. And as populations become more prosperous, the foods they consume will likely be increasingly water-intensive. Can adequate food and nutrition be produced using less water? What will be the effects of global warming? These will be critical questions going forward in a world of water stress.
The way water is used for food production is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons; it is tough to fault anyone for trying to feed their families or produce food for export to hungry people, but when everyone pushes water supplies beyond their replenishment rate, ultimately none of these farmers, big or small, will be able to feed anyone.
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The big story here begins with innovation in agricultural practices over the last century (concentrated in the 1960s) that have largely fed the world, albeit while doing serious damage to the world’s water supplies.
The toll on the water cycle brought on by the Green Revolution has been significant, from overuse and the unsustainable use of water to the pollution of water from agricultural chemical and organic run-off. Water stress could lead to food stress as irrigation sources dry up.
A big part of a potential solution to easing water stress will be increasing the water-efficiency of agriculture.
The success of crop per drop efficiency, however, depends on people being able to get crucial food imports at stable prices. When global food markets falter, as they did in 2008, the trend often swings back to self-sufficiency over water efficiency. Countries begin growing food crops that they do not have the sustainable water supplies to support. See the 2008 New York Times series entitled “The Food Chain,” which illustrates how this desire for food self-sufficiency has led countries such as Djibouti to grow rice (a highly water intensive crop for which it is not suited) in solar paneled greenhouses, fed with groundwater and cooled with seawater, making it the most expensive rice in the world.
Below are some trends to watch relating to agriculture and water:
1) Meat consumption is rising all over the world.
2) Non-food crops consume a great deal of water, expanding the water footprint of the agricultural sector while not directly feeding anyone. Profits from growing and selling cash crops such as these do allow people to purchase food from other sources, but as more land (and more water) is devoted to non-food crops, food supplies and prices are impacted.
3) There is increasing competition between small farmers and large-scale agribusinesses for limited irrigation resources. It is tough to say which are more water-efficient.
4) Help for poor countries in boosting their agricultural water efficiency is lacking at a time in which it is becoming more critical.
5) When considering water for agriculture, fishing is often not taken into account.
6) Global warming is thought to be playing a role in the increasing prevalence of droughts all over the world. Feeding a growing population with any kind of crops (water-intensive or water-efficient) is likely to become more challenging as water stress increases due to more severe droughts.