Thinking Beyond Technology to Ensure Food Security

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Food production uses large amounts of water.  To be more precise, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global water use.  As the world’s population grows, increasing amounts of food, and therefore increasing amounts of water, are needed.  At the same time, there are growing concerns about global and regional water scarcity.  The question arises then: how can we use water optimally to help ensure food security?  There are a variety of technologies that can improve the situation and provide sufficient food for growing populations.  Chen Lei, from the Ministry of Water Resources in China, spoke at the WWF about some of the technological solutions that China has utilized.  These solutions have enabled his country to feed 21% of the population with only 6% of the world’s land.  China promotes the use of improved seeds, improved fertilizers, dry farming, and drip irrigation. While these are valuable technological tools, there are a multitude of other non-technological tools that can be used to address broader issues through institutional or political change.

At the World Water Forum in Marseille France, a session on Wednesday, March 14 discussed this topic in a panel titled, “Contributing to food security by optimal use of water”.  Speakers from China, Mali, France, India, Nestle, among others, contributed their own experiences and ideas to the discussion.

Growing Demand For Food

There is a growing demand for food globally.  Alexander Muller from the Natural Resources and Environment department at FAO (The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) set the scene for the discussion.  The global population is growing, he said.  It is expected that 60 percent more food will be needed to feed the additional three billion people that will exist by the end of the century.  In order to produce this food, increasing amounts of water will need to be consumed.  However, the barriers to producing greater amounts of food continue to grow.

One barrier is decreasing resources in the face of a growing population. In 1990, there were 7.9 hectares per person, and in 2005 there were only 2.02 ha per person. Another barrier, growing because of climate change, is the transition of semi-arid areas to arid areas.  Arid land is less desirable for food production, which further reduces the amount of land available for growing crops.  Political problems exist with trans-boundary waters, which are already difficult to manage.  These political problems may be exacerbated with increasing water scarcity.  A further barrier arises from development, which leads diets to become more water intense as people consume more meat and processed foods.  Finally, our world’s food system is very inefficient. Large quantities of food are thrown away, which represents a waste of resources, energy, and time.

More creative solutions

More than 220 solutions, most of which are technical solutions, were provided for Theme 2.2 at the World Water Forum.  This is an excellent achievement.  However, technical solutions alone will likely not alone solve the issue.  Potential solutions include focusing on getting existing technology that increases agricultural efficiency to small farmers.  D.M More, the President of Irrigation Collaboration in India, pointed out that small land farms are mostly rain-fed.  These farms may benefit from access to modern technology.

Instead of trying to fix the conditions in one region, it may be beneficial look to another region better suited for that agricultural purpose.  H.E. Agatham Ag Alassane, the Minister of Agriculture of Mali, comes from a country with unique problems.  Mali is not lacking in land – it has a lot of land area that could be irrigated, but it has so far been unable to take advantage of this potential.  Government support has only been able to increase irrigated land by 10,000ha per year.  There are opportunities to take advantage of much more of this fertile soil that has never been used for agriculture.  If this resource was used, Mali could become an important grain producer for West Africa.  This situation demonstrates that land resources do exist in certain areas that could provide food for many people, which could be utilized if given support to be developed. International economic cooperation could lead to the investment capital being delivered to irrigate this land.

Another possibility is to alter consumer behaviors.  One way to approach the needs of a growing population is to increase supply and grow more food and find the most water-efficient ways to do this.  Another way is to reduce the demand for food.  This could be done by altering diets to consist of less water-intense food.  Although considered extreme by many, removing (or reducing) meat from the diet significantly reduces water consumption.  Reducing demand for food could also be done by eliminating the amount of waste.  Especially in the United States, a large portion of food grown never ends up consumed.  Changing consumer behaviors, although challenging because of the desire for consumer choice, could lead to significant changes.

An additional strategy is to increase the price of water.  If farmers paid a higher price for water, which took into account the impacts of removing it from the environment, they may find innovative techniques to use less.  Although there are many implications to increasing water prices, this solution seems to make sense.

What do you think of these ideas?  What other solutions, apart from technology, could ensure food security by using water optimally?  Post your ideas below.


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