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Food Ethics Magazine – Water

Food Ethics Magazine Spring 2008 Cover

The spring edition of the Food Ethics Council‘s magazine deals with the subject of water. The magazine is available as a subscription from their website.

Many of the advances in food production quantities seen in the last 50 years have been facilitated with the use of irrigation, for example enabling agriculture in regions that would not fully support it with natural rainfall. However, in many places the water use has not been designed to be sustainable and the aquifers and other sources are being depleted, requiring the drilling of deeper and deeper wells. Climate changes are exacerbating the situation in some areas and the expansion of bio-fuel agriculture compounds the problem. When viewed at the global level, this issue has serious implications for food security.  Here are some of the issues covered…

In the magazine Jacob Tompkins, Director of Waterwise looks at the issue of how export/import of food is effectively a water transfer – Due to the large quantities of water needed to grow crops, for example 1 million litres of water for a tonne of wheat, the importation of that wheat can act like a transfer of that amount of water from producer area to consumer. This can be seen as positive, where for instance a country with few water resources receives from one with plenty. But it can also lead to the depletion of local water resources such as the example of the Aral Sea which has virtually disappeared due to use of water for the irrigation of cotton in the area. For consumers trying to make ethical buying decisions, the embedded water issue (the water used in production of a food) adds another incredibly complex layer of factors to already complex questions of energy use in production and transport. Probably the only way to address the issue is for more common sense to be applied at a global level through regulation.

Dr José Esteban Castro of the University of Newcastle writes about water ethics and how plans on ensuring water supplies to the worlds population have been downgraded and that currently around 17% of the population does not have access to safe water supplies and 40% lack sanitation. There are fundamental conflicts between water ideologies, with many institutions seeing water as a commodity/ economic resource to be paid for rather than a common good that should be available to all. With organisations like the World Bank supporting the economic/commodity aspect of water, ethical/democratic water policy remains an aspiration.

A number of contributors provide answers to the question “Is our food too thirsty?”. Some points raised are…

  • They highlight that rich populations are responsible for far more water use through food, especially with meat-rich diets. Grains require large quantities of water in production, if the grain is fed to animals, meat production ends up being extremely water-intense.
  • Often farmers do not pay the full costs associated with the irrigation water they use, especially if the resource is being depleted, farming interests in many parts of the world protect the unsustainable use of water for low value crops.
  • With a growing world population many of whom are increasing their meat consumption and the expansion of bio-fuel programmes, demand for cereal crops could treble in the future, but it is unlikely that water supplies would be sufficient to enable this.
  • With food price increases and actual water scarcity in many areas, more conflicts over water seem inevitable. Awareness of water use and scarcity and more intelligent planning and allocation of water resources are needed for any improvement to be likely.

Stuart Downward of Kingston University, Surrey covers desalination technology and whether that can be part of the solution. He concludes that due to its energy use, desalination can never be a solution for agricultural needs except for very rich populations or for very valuable crops as the water is too expensive. If the energy used comes from oil/coal/gas then the technology is also polluting and liable to become even more expensive as those resources decline. Renewable energy solutions are possible, he mentions a large plant that has been built in Perth, Western Australia which is run on electricity collected by a large wind turbine installation nearby.

Professor Mike Acreman of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology highlights research on the monetary benefits of natural systems over artificial. When the value of all the activities associated with an eco-system are taken into account, the value is often far more than for replacing or degrading that system with for instance irrigated cash crops. But there are many pressures for hydro-electric generation, water transfer, and irrigation that damage eco-systems and the world’s poor who survive on them.

Stuart Orr of WWF-UK writes of the growing awareness of food production companies about water supply issues, leading to analysis of water footprint analysis of foods, populations and businesses. Some major food producers are taking action to reduce water use and waste but companies need to take into account the whole supply chain if a real impact is to be made.

Maria Arce Moreira of Practical Action writes about water and power, how the rich and powerful always win when it comes to competition for increasingly scarce water supplies. She also raises the issue of food waste in rich countries, for example around a third of all food in the UK is thrown away. This creates disposal and decomposition problems but also is responsible for an incredible waste of water and energy inputs to the production, transport and processing of the food. What responsibility can that waste have when a large proportion of the world is lacking food, water and energy supplies. Finally she points out how modern crop varieties have favoured water content over nutrition, due to their sale by weight.

John Turner, a farmer from Stamford, Lincolnshire writes of the importance of soil quality for preventing floods and droughts. Specifically, he highlights the benefits of soil organic matter content, which, when high easily absorbs available water and keeps it longer when water is scarce. Organic matter contents of soil have fallen with the use of synthetic fertilisers and other inputs. Unfortunately, the process of rebuilding depleted organic matter is extremely slow, and he has had relatively small improvements despite ten years of altered practices, so it is not a quick remedy.

Finally Jeanette Longfield of Sustain sees some evidence for the demise of bottled water due to its economic and environmental unsustainability.


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