“We’re using tomorrow’s water to meet today’s food demand,” warned Sandra Postel, National Geographic Freshwater Fellow, helping to provoke a meaningful discussion on water as it relates to food at the Aspen Environmental Forum. Agriculture was a central theme as it consumes a disproportionate share of global water resources.
Jon Foley from the University of Minnesota painted a picture of our inefficiency. “One liter of water is needed to irrigate one calorie food, but that changes by factor of 100 for the most inefficient practices.” It is clear that water efficiency improvements for agriculture must play a large role.
One challenge is to gain an accurate understanding of the issue because allocation of water resources is not easily visible. Postel explained the concept of “virtual water” to paint a clearer picture.
Water is a direct and indirect component of everything we use, make and eat. The average American consumes 2,000 gallons of water per day and more than half is incorporated into our diet. Grain represents the trading currency for water in the same way that oil is a trading currency for energy. The reason Egypt imports grain is because they are water stressed.
The first thing a water stressed country will do is to shift their water resources from the agriculture sector to the urban and industrial sector in order to maximize the economic potential of available water. As China and India face water problems, Postel said to expect a major shift in grain trade.
On a similar note, Foley advised not to get distracted by the real problem. Only one bottle of water is needed to produce a bottle of water, whereas hundreds of gallons of water goes into a thimble size cup of cream due to the agricultural origin of the product. Bottled water is not a water problem. It is a plastic problem. It is important to recognize the true nature of the problem.
The session finished with some advice from Postel. Don’t just think about production side of things. Instead frame the question, “How do we provide a nutritious diet on less water?”