I had almost given up on news that isn’t somehow related to “credit crunch” or “bailout,” until I stumbled upon a thought provoking topic in a recent issue of The Economist: "The world has a water shortage, not a food shortage."
My immediate reaction was: "WHAT?" But the numbers seem to make sense – while people only drink about 2 liters of water a day, almost 3,000 liters of water goes into the food people eat every day (add a few more liters for the meat that takes far more water to produce). The article focuses particularly on the inefficient use of water by farmers based on today’s methods of agriculture. In fact, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) predicts that as population grows and incomes rise, 2,000 cubic kilometers of additional water will be needed each year to keep everyone fed!
So what is the real problem, and how to fix it? Well, farming accounts for 70% of human water consumption, and nearly 70% of water used by farmers never reaches the crops – much of it lost through leaky irrigation channels or by draining into rivers or groundwater. And even when water is scarce, it is often squandered. For example, cotton-farmers in Uzbekistan received a fixed allocation of water whether they needed it or not. Letting farmers decide how much water they needed helped cut water consumption by 30% in Uzbekistan. Rice farmers can cut water consumption by flooding paddy fields only some of the times. Wheat growers in India and Australia can conserve water by minimizing tilling – leaving a layer of mulch on fields’ surface to absorb rain water and minimizing evaporation.
The article cites a few other examples of ways in which the use of water for agriculture can be made more efficient. Going High-Tech: Agronomists have designed algorithms that use satellite data to calculate the rate at which plants absorb water. While all eyes are focused on water, is efficient use of water the only way to improve agricultural yield? What about seeds? And fertilizers? These are also valid concerns, but in many parts of the world, it is primarily the water shortage (or inefficient use of water) that seems to be leading to the food shortage. It is a scary thought nevertheless and necessitates active efforts in raising agricultural yields, or else consider the alternative: giving up meat and other thirsty products altogether!!