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New Thinking Needed to Reconcile Food-Water Choke Points

New Thinking Needed to Reconcile Food-Water Choke Points thumbnail

Food and water are tied to one another fundamentally. But in addition to their biophysical relationship, human systems intervene, whether through pricing schemes and trade agreements or shifting patterns in consumption and taste.

A recently released report commissioned by the Swedish FAO Committee, which supports the work of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, provides a fresh look at where we stand in regard to this important global balancing act. Jan Lundqvist, Jenny Grönwall, and myself take stock of changes in water supply due to climate change (increased variability), its effects on the global capacity to grow enough food to sustain a growing global population (significant), and efforts to link the global water resources situation with increasing scarcity (too-often failed).

Too Little or Too Much

Water resources are scarce in relation to booming demand. Demographic change (2 billion people are expected to be added to world population by 2050) and shifts in food habits (meat-heavy diets are becoming more popular as a global middle class emerges) mean food production must increase rapidly in the near future.

Meanwhile, availability of water varies significantly from place to place. Climate change is disrupting rainfall patterns and causing prolonged periods of extremes. Droughts that last for years, such as the current one in California, represent a new normal.

800 million people are undernourished while 2 billion are overweight

Together these conditions represent a radically new context for food and water security. Many governance systems are based on an older model of inputs and outputs and are promoting poor management of water resources and food production under today’s conditions. Misguided incentives encouraging wasteful use of water are one example (e.g., heavy subsidies of irrigation water). As a result, the widely endorsed human right to household water, sanitation, and food has yet to be fulfilled. There are still far too many people that go to bed hungry each day.

It is not only a question of achieving adequate food supply but also nutritional quality. Global food supply has increased by around 30 percent in recent decades, but much of it has not reached those who need it most. Indeed, more and more people eat far too much and exercise too little leading to obesity. While this is a major global health challenge it is also a food, water, and energy challenge. The food that we do not need but still consume puts an unnecessary burden on the environment and represents a misallocation of resources as others starve. About 800 million people are undernourished globally while 2 billion are overweight or obese.

Similarly, between one third and one half of the food produced around the world is lost due to spoilage during transport or storage, lack of access to markets, or waste by consumers. Rivers of water are literally exploited in vain. When the rivers are actually desiccated and the rains fail, people turn to groundwater, which is often several hundred meters deep in affluent as well as low-income countries – and dropping.

Toward Better Efficiency and Equity

Consequences of food and water trends are wide. After outlining the major challenges, the report highlights some ways forward. The report calls for more effective governance of water as part of food production, including decreasing losses in the food supply chain. Investment is needed in transportation, storage, market access, and trade so as to improve the flow of both food and water between places, both nationally and internationally. Administrative, economic, and physical barriers need to be removed to promote trade and efficiency but also allow for the adoption of key inputs for food production in poorer regions.

In addition, food waste and the role of consumers is highlighted. Adopting healthier and less water intensive diets (less focus on meat and more on vegetables) can make a major difference while also reducing obesity. Consumers can also make a stronger effort not to throw away edible food. In this regard it is important for governments to commit themselves to a significant decrease in food waste. Resolutions such as the one passed by the European Parliament in January 2012 to halve the food waste within the European Union by 2025 need to be followed up by concrete national commitments to achieve them.

There is much to do, but moving ahead on even a few of these issues will make a difference in the challenge ahead. Unless we start to address the food-water nexus, feeding the world will become increasingly difficult. With a growing population and increasing climatic variability leading to disruptions in water availability – and therefore food production – action is urgently needed.

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9 Comments on "New Thinking Needed to Reconcile Food-Water Choke Points"

  1. Kenz300 on Tue, 28th Jul 2015 8:33 am 

    New thinking needed to to end the unsustainable population growth………

    Every year the world adds 80 million more mouths to feed, clothe, house, and provide energy and water for. That is not sustainable.

    Birth Control Permanent Methods: Learn About Effectiveness

  2. Davy on Tue, 28th Jul 2015 9:23 am 

    Article said “between one third and one half of the food produced around the world is lost due to spoilage during transport or storage, lack of access to markets, or waste by consumers.”

    It is unrealistic to think this will change much. We have reached limits and declining marginal returns to efficiency. In fact efficiency is causing declining resilience in many areas. Many sustainable subsistence farming arrangements are being changed over to production agriculture destroying local economies.

    The decline of the global economy will mean less food and less fuel. Anyone here who says otherwise is an idiot. Our global system cannot increase food production without increased complexity and energy intensity. Energy intensity and complexity are approaching or are in decline. Currently it is just a matter of terminology or just a matter of phrasing how we define growth, plateau, or descent.

    We appear to be on a bumpy plateau or decline. Real aggregate productive growth is surely over. Dangerous descent has not started. Food will bring down nations and destroy networks eventually. It is just a matter of time. Nature will rebalance consumption and population. This is law of nature and undeniable.

  3. apneaman on Tue, 28th Jul 2015 6:25 pm 

    Beyond Extinction
    Transition to post-capitalism is inevitable

    “The risk of civilizational collapse — and outright extinction — is perhaps the clearest signal that there is something deeply wrong with the global system in its current form. So wrong, that is right now on a path to self-annihilation.

    It’s a path that we’re already on. War, famine, and social break-down are happening right now in the context of escalating, interconnected climate, food and energy crises. The conflicts in the Middle East that are now pre-occupying Western governments were sparked by a cocktail of climate-induced drought, entrenched inequalities, depletion of cheap oil, and political repression.

    The spiralling terrorist violence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and beyond — purportedly in the name of religion — is being aggravated by concrete material realities: water scarcity, energy scarcity, and food scarcity.”

  4. Makati1 on Tue, 28th Jul 2015 8:32 pm 

    “800 million people are undernourished while 2 billion are overweight”

    That says it all. The US wastes enough food every day to feed the entire Philippine population. Why? Because they are spoiled and greedy. They pass laws making it illegal to give expired food to shelters or food pantries. They throw away blemished fruits and veggies because they cannot sell them to the picky sheeple and have store policy to prevent the employees from taking it home for their own use.

    I worked in a large grocery store chain and was surprised at what we threw away everyday because it was a day past expiration or was wilted or had a bad spot or other excuse. When we sliced cheese or meats in the deli, for a customer, the first slice ALWAYS had to be thrown away. We threw away kilos of cheese and lunch meats every day. We were not allowed to eat them.

    Yes, there will be food problems, but the deaths caused by obesity will end a lot of them soon. Only the strong will survive. That’s how nature thins the herd and improves the breed.

  5. Boat on Tue, 28th Jul 2015 9:36 pm 


    Europe and the US export the most food by far. The US consumer including the poor pays a much higher price. Why do we have to subsidies the world when population is in overshoot. Are we the ones that need to lose weight? Then the world says we use to much fuel to send the world food cheaper than we can buy. Why won’t you fight for fairness. Cut our food bill and don’t buy any US products.

  6. Makati1 on Tue, 28th Jul 2015 10:08 pm 


    “Swiss helicopter shocks French lake bathers by ‘stealing water’ for thirsty cows”

    The water wars have begun…

  7. Makati1 on Tue, 28th Jul 2015 10:31 pm 

    Boat, exporting GMO poisoned corn, wheat and soy is NOT a positive. The spoiled Americans have no idea what is coming as their own farms are ruined by their greed and climate change also a result of greed. Dumpster diving will spread and fast when that day comes. Not to mention deaths when the health care charade collapses.

    BTW: ZERO fraking in the Ps, GMOs are being outlawed here, and ibuprofen is banned totally. 3rd world does not equal stupid nor does 1st world equal inteligent.

  8. Makati1 on Tue, 28th Jul 2015 10:55 pm 

    Boat, I buy very little from the US, including food. The high prices are NOT because of exports. They are because of the profit margins of ALL of the in-between hands it passes through.

    If you buy a can of corn, that includes: the miners of the metals for the machines that mine the ores for the cans, the smelting and processing of that ore into can metal, the machines to do that, manufacturing of the machines for the can manufacturer, the manufacturing of the cans, the warehouse that stored the cans for use, the trees cut down and processed into the label paper, the chemical plants that made the dyes for the print, the label makers, the warehouse for those labels, the gas wells that provided the gas to be converted into chemicals, the chemical plants that made the fertilizers and insecticides, The warehouse for both, the GMO seed company that grew the seeds, the warehousing of those seeds until planting time, the manufacturing of the farm equipment, the farmer preparing the fields and planting, the reliance of the farmer on the proper weather and water to grow that corn, the harvesting of the corn, the processing and final canning of the corn, the warehousing of the canned corn until purchased by the distributor, the stocking of the shelves in the supermarket, and not to mention all of the trucking and energy used for all of these, and more, processes not mentioned. Keep in mind that there is a profit tacked on to EVERY step mines to table. I think $1 per can is cheap, don’t you?

    Any question why food costs so much?

    BTW: I buy my canned corn from Thailand for $0.57 per 15oz can. Corn, water and salt. Cheaper labor? Fewer in-betweens? Less profit? I don’t know or care. It’s half the price of US canned corn and tases better.^_^

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