The Food-Water Nexus

The Problem

Feeding the world population requires an expansive agricultural regime, involving large irrigation systems and massive amounts of water.  Failure to use this water efficiently results in substantial water waste.  The water waste problem, however, reaches much deeper than the surface issue of irrigation practices.  In fact, the wasting of food before it is consumed results in the wasting of the water used to grow and produce that food.  It is estimated on average that nearly $250 billion in food is wasted each year worldwide.  In the United States, food losses cost an estimated $48 billion, corresponding to 10.5 trillion gallons of misused water.  The bottom line is that wasting food directly implicates wasting water.

This dual waste is a significant problem considering projected population growth.  A United Nations’ study estimated that by 2075 the world population will increase to a staggering 9.5 billion, adding over three billion extra mouths to fill.  With one billion people worldwide currently underfed, feeding this additional population poses a real problem.

According to an Institute of Mechanical Engineers report, almost 70% of the world’s freshwater is used to irrigate and grow crops.  Because nearly half of those crops go to waste before consumption, 35% of the world’s freshwater is also used inefficiently.  In developing countries, waste primarily occurs in the post-harvest phase, stemming from insect infestation and inefficient storage.  In developed countries, waste occurs at the other end of the food-supply chain.  Here, approximately 40% of food is lost at food retailers or thrown away by consumers.  Moreover, because developed country food prices pale in comparison to other household costs, food waste is unfortunately not a high priority for many citizens in developed countries.


Addressing the Problem

The problem of water waste lies in every link of the food production chain – from the fields to the table, and effective solutions must address every link.  Many creative ideas exist, and the simple ones begin with the fields, food retailers, and consumers.  In the field, farmers require better harvesting technologies, transportation, and storage facilities.  Agriculture must implement more efficient irrigation techniques to ensure additional crop production with less water.  Proper packaging can help extend the shelf life of food, thus reducing post-harvest and transportation food losses.  Food retailers should implement better inventory systems to ensure that stocked food is not thrown away before purchase.  And finally, consumer behavior must change.  Although likely difficult, purchasing habits should match actual consumption before food spoilage, and consumers must stop throwing away significant food portions.



As the world population grows the demand for food and agriculture will increase, causing global agricultural production to further strain limited water resources.  A logical approach to solving this dual problem requires reducing the waste of agricultural goods along with more efficient irrigating methods to ensure sufficient water is available in the future.