A Growing Problem: How Global Food Production Is Draining the World’s Water

A Growing Problem: How Global Food Production Is Draining the World’s Water

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After oxygen, food and water are the two most fundamental requirements for the existence of life. So what happens when the production of one begins to threaten the security of the other? 

The agricultural industry is responsible for 90% of freshwater consumption globally, and 40% of the water it uses is pumped directly from underground, often at unsustainable rates. Nearly 10% of people do not have enough to eat already and global food production will likely have to increase by 50% over the next 30 years in order to meet the demands of a rapidly growing population. This does not bode well for the future of water security given current unsustainable water extraction practices.

It’s no secret that water is the key ingredient to growing food, but the virtual water that goes into its production is often overlooked. ‘Virtual water’ refers to the total amount of water used in the growth and production of food and accounts for the visible water used for irrigation and animal hydration as well as the ‘hidden’ water required to manufacture packaging and enable transport of the final products. When taking into account the true volume of water that goes into feeding modern society, one can easily understand why supply is fast becoming inadequate. The ‘cheaper food’ paradigm is another aspect of today’s agricultural industry which is driving down resource levels. Striving to produce cheaper food in greater quantities puts a huge strain on freshwater resources and reduces soil quality, ultimately to the point that the land loses its productive capacity. This, in turn, intensifies agricultural practices in a vicious cycle which leads to further exploitation of water resources that are already under stress.

This draining effect is not equally spread throughout the various sectors of the agricultural industry. Water footprint, which is another name for virtual water content, varies depending on the type of agricultural product, and even from region to region. For example, because factory-farmed animals are often fed on grains as opposed to grazing on land, their food comes with its own water footprint which hikes up that of the final animal product. This contributes to meat and poultry having the largest water footprint in the agricultural sector. The water inefficiency of meat production is compounded by the fact that the farming of animals for meat and dairy accounts for 78% of agricultural land use, yet only provides 37% of the global protein supply and just 18% of global calories. Plant-based products, on the other hand, such as grains, pulses, fruit and vegetables, tend to have a smaller water footprint and supply the vast majority of the world’s calories.

There are multiple ways in which both industry and consumer can address the dysfunctional relationship we have with the resources upon which we all depend. On the farmers’ part, improved irrigation systems can ensure maximum efficiency by providing the right amount of water for healthy crops whilst reducing waste. This goes hand in hand with the management and conservation of the water resources that feed these systems. Groundwater irrigation is fed from aquifers which store the water underground and are refilled naturally from surface water and rainfall. High water demand leads to excessive pumping which, if it occurs at a rate faster than that of natural groundwater replenishment, can cause the water table to fall as the aquifer becomes depleted. Proper supervision of pumping rates and water levels can protect against this whilst allowing sustainable irrigation to continue. Rainfed agriculture is another sustainable alternative, involving the use of dams and other means to harvest and store rainwater. This is particularly promising in developing countries where advanced pumping and irrigation technology may not be available.

The indirect consumption of water is another aspect that can be tackled. The materials used in food packaging (plastic in particular) all have their own water footprints and are often used gratuitously on food products that don’t need them. This, along with the global transportation of food, is an area of ‘invisible’ water use that can be challenged by both producers and consumers. At a consumer level, individual actions can similarly be taken to reduce the water footprint of our food. A shift from the modern, meat-heavy diet, replacing water-laden products with more sustainable alternatives, would have a significant impact on overall water consumption and could safeguard both food and water security for years to come. Eating on a more seasonal and local basis is another change we can individually make. Even a simple decision to reduce food waste can contribute to the preservation of precious water resources.

We can’t produce food without water, but the current nature of our growing dependence may well threaten the security of both. Whether it’s a change in the foods we eat, or the development of more efficient and sustainable methods by which they are produced, action needs to be taken to prevent two of our most vital resources from dragging each other into scarcity.

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