Feeding a Thirsty World: What the Stockholm International Water Institute Really Said

Background

The Stockholm International Water Institute issued a report to usher in World Water Week last August, entitled “Feeding a Thirsty World: Challenges and Opportunities for a Water and Food Secure Future.” The report focuses on worldwide water issues and how they affect the food and energy sectors.  It offers analysis of the problems arising from those water issues as well as possible solutions.  However, the report has been sensationalized in various news reports and the nearly fifty-page report has been reduced to headlines such as “By 2050, you might be forced to become a vegetarian.”  This is misleading and not in accord with the overall message of the Stockholm Institute’s report.

Points in Controversy

In a Yahoo story, a statement regarding a required move toward vegetarianism was not even attributed to the Stockholm Institute, but rather to an outside scientist commenting on the report. Yes, the report does state that, under the current projections, there is enough water to sustain food production in 2050 only if animal-based foods make up five percent of the total calorie consumption.  However, the purpose of the report was much broader and this post will attempt to fill in the gaps left open by those news reports.

The Facts

Today, one billion people suffer malnourishment in spite of the fact that food production is steadily increasing.  This is certainly not a new problem.  In fact at the turn of this century, the United Nations set a goal to reduce the number of people who suffer from hunger worldwide to 240 million by 2015. As of yet, there has been little progress towards that goal. If the population continues to consume food at current rates, food production will need to increase 70% by mid-century.  This increased production will place great stress on already stressed water resources at a time when the energy sector also faces increased demands for water (which is expected to rise 60% over the next thirty years).

Undoubtedly, more productive use of limited, highly contentious water resources is necessary.  It is certainly important to develop and implement higher efficiency irrigation, but this must be coordinated with better use of local rains and small-scale supplemental irrigation.  Additionally, better coordination between land and water resource management as well as strong support of farmers is vital.  Because rainfall is variable, farmers need early warning systems for drought risks.

There is an undeniable link between hunger and water.  In fact, up to 50% of all malnutrition is attributable in some way to unclean water.  Additionally, each person requires 50 to 100 times more water to produce and grow the food they eat than the amount of water they use in their home.

Analyses taking in to account many factors, such as current dietary trends, food intake, and climate issues show that there will not be enough water available on current croplands to produce food for the expected 9 billion people that will be alive in 2050.  That is, of course, if the world continues to follow current trends and maintain diets common in western nations.  With 70% of all available water being used in agriculture, growing more food to feed an additional two billion people by 2050 will place even greater pressure on water resources.

If the usage rate continues at its current pace, by the time 2050 scenario comes to fruition, only 1/3 of the world will have enough water to allow for food self-sufficiency, 3/5 of the world will face difficulties in accessing irrigation water, and ½ of the world will live in chronic water shortage.  Those are staggering numbers when the base is 9 billion people. In many cases, surface water irrigation is unsustainable due to depletions of river flow and regional climate aridification. In fact, a quarter of continental land in the world has river flows being depleted and this is occurring largely in areas where agriculture depends on irrigation.

Without a doubt, the report issued by the Stockholm Institute paints a bleak picture of the world’s food and water supply.  It does not, however, simply state that the world will need to go vegetarian by 2050.  In reality, the word “vegetarian” is not found in the report at all and is only referenced in one line about animal-based foods potentially only being able to make up 5% of total calorie consumption in 2050.  The solutions proposed by the Stockholm Institute are much more deeply rooted in information and efficiency than dietary change.

A major theme of the report is the need to pay more attention to the supply chain and reducing waste from the “field to fork” timeframe, which refers to the total cycle from the farm to consumers’ plates.  The report calls for more attention to be paid to supply chain issues, and notes that increasing geographical distance between producers and consumers results in the need for improved post-harvest operations.  As the world urbanizes even more, that geographical distance will grow and exacerbate the issues surrounding water and food security.  On one hand, making water of acceptable quality available for food production carries a significant energy bill, but, on the other hand energy production is associated with significant water consumption.  Therefore, the report states that increased consciousness about water and energy linkage will be a cornerstone of future food, water, and energy security.  The link between water and food is undeniable; in fact, for every 2 pounds of food produced, over 6,000 gallons of water is used.

Another major focus of the report is the need for new partnerships. In addition to the clear water/food/energy linkage, water and food security are related to health security and human rights issues.  Therefore, it is something that all governments should be working together to solve.  Local, national, regional, and global efforts need to be made to ensure better governance of food and water.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Stockholm Institute’s report highlights the severe issues surrounding water and food scarcity that could plague the planet by mid-century.  The report does not, however, say that people will have no choice but to become vegetarians, as several news articles have suggested.  The report certainly hints that the current consumption of animal-based foods is not sustainable, but only at the current pace and under the current situations.  Greater awareness, new policies, and better efficiency could manage the problem before it becomes an epidemic.

 


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