Today, at the Chicago Council’s Global Food Security Symposium, a panel on “Water Stresses and Global Food Security,” focused on current water stresses effecting global food security. Ann M. Veneman, Former Secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, chaired the discussion and began by asking about the current water situation.
Herbert Oberhaensli, chief economist at Nestle S.A., explained, “water must be here in the right place, time, and form to be a resource.” Volatile weather patterns – including monsoons – doesn’t benefit the land or agricultural productivity. “If we don’t change the way we are using water today, by 2030 we will use 60 percent more water than is sustainably available,” said Oberhaensli.
Lester R. Brown, president of Earth Policy Institute, explained water resources are the principal constraint on increasing food production. “Humans drink four liters a day, but the food we eat every day requires 2,000 liters to be produced. That’s 500 times as much,” said Brown. “We don’t visualize the amount of water it takes to produce our food.” Brown explained it takes 2,000 tons of water to produce one ton of rice and 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of wheat. In countries like, Egypt, where a large amount of rice is produced and there is also a water shortage, farmers should reduce rice crop production and increase wheat cultivation to increase food production.
Veneman reminded listeners of the current drought in California: the worst in U.S. history. In the Central Valley in California, the crops lost this year are valued at US$1.7 billion and farmers have to make “water decisions” in areas of high drought, based on the demand of crops.
A.G. Kawamura, co-chair on the Solutions from the Land Dialogue, resonated with the situation in California. “It’s amazing how quickly we can get in to trouble as a large agricultural state,” he said. His fruit and vegetable farm would have lost 50-60 percent of its harvest if he didn’t have irrigation. Kawamura’s farm is looking into hydroponics as an alternative method and to save 50-60 percent of water resources. He suggested California build out the next half century of infrastructure so the state can grow into it.
Ronnie D. Green, vice president of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Harlan Vice Chancellor, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska, said he comes from a place that is a nexus of water. He explained, “a reference was made as to whether farmers thought climate change was a real issue. I can assure you, farmers think it is not only real, but important.” Green said we have the sources, but innovations need to be ramped up significantly. He also emphasized the use of water in food processing.
Jessica Adelman, senior vice president of Corporate Affairs North America at Syngenta, explained Syngenta’s “good growth plan,” which includes increasing productivity with less inputs. She said, “Syngenta understands the importance of feeding the planet in a way that is sustainable and to protect it for future generations.” Furthermore, “agriculture needs to be climate-smart, people-smart, and environment-smart.”
Veneman closed out the discussion by asking what the top priority or action would be in addressing food and water scarcity. Adelman said, “something needs to change, it’s time to rethink water.” Green said, “water is the new oil.” Oberhaensli thinks there is enough room to save water and Brown explained photosynthesis is the most efficient technology we have. “The most important thing we can do is move down the food chain – 80 percent of water is used for irrigation, we need to rethink the system.”