The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Water, Water…. Where? Time for Efficiency and Behavioral Changes

Water, Water…. Where? Time for Efficiency and Behavioral Changes

Shoppers and Trends

April 26, 2009

Recently we have seen a reversal in the increases of the CPI for food – which is good news for consumers. Will that continue? Global water shortages continue to be a problem. Climatology and economic experts are pointing to things like climate change, population increases, and an increase in the so-called “meat-based diets” being identified by scientists as the major contributors to what many have termed the global water crisis. About 70 percent of global water is used for agriculture; in some developing countries where populations are growing fastest that figure is as much as 90 percent. 

As more people climb out of poverty, there is a direct correlation to an increase in their consumption of meat. As meat consumption increases, so does the need for more water. If more current affluent countries reduce their meat consumption and improve their agricultural water management, we can hopefully reduce our demand for water. Agricultural water management is critical to keep food supplies plentiful and prices reasonable.  

For example, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently declared a state of emergency and threatened water rationing in the state. Many California farmers are facing financial ruin as a consequence of the water crisis. What will this do to food prices? It would seem like the California farmer's problem is our problem. Australia’s decade long drought helped sharply increase global rice prices. Again, the Australian problem seems like it our problem as well. There are many examples across the globe of challenges to the food supply and thus the ultimate price consumers will pay for food. The Food and Agricultural Organization contends that, without changes in efficiency, the world will need as much as 60% more water for agriculture for the extra two billion mouths to feed by 2020.
The good news is there is room for significant improvement in the efficient use and management of our water supply. People will be required to change their habits and governments will need to reexamine bad and inefficient water policies. An example of needed government change is right here in Virginia (N.G.A.’s office is in Arlington, VA). The town of Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, has 13 water authorities to “manage” their water supply. To many experts, this type of governance is not an efficient way to manage water, nor is it good public policy. Public Policy on a more global perspective indicates that aid for irrigation projects in the 2002-2006 time frame was less than half what it had been in the 1978-1982 time frame, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 

As is often the way, business is ahead of governments in addressing this challenge. Companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have set themselves targets to reduce the amount of water they use in producing their products. Clearly this is an area where the food industry needs to take a global leadership position to ensure that our global water supply is sufficient to sustain us.
Water can be the limiting factor to all that we do. Doing more with less will be a critical paradigm shift for all of us if we are to successfully meet and manage this crisis.