Eating Our Way to a Thirsty Planet

Sept. 17, 2012
A new report highlights threats and opportunities for food and water scarcity. Can the West change its water intensive eating habits?

Tom Freyberg
Chief Editor

A new report highlights threats and opportunities for food and water scarcity. Can the West change its water intensive eating habits?

Like any other red blooded carnivore, I've been partial to a good steak in the past. A medium-rare Wagyu sirloin, to be precise, was one of the highlights of my steak eating conquests.

In the past I've not really put any thought – like the majority of Westerners – in the journey a particular steak has taken to make it from "field to fork" for my enjoyment. Even having a strict vegetarian fiancée hasn't changed my eating habits over the years.

Yet recently my diet has changed. It's always been healthy but over the last month it's got better. I've cut down on the amount of red meat, increased grilled, lean white meat such as chicken, reduced carbohydrates and increased fruit, salad and vegetables.

Why the change? Firstly it was a decision to cut down on saturated fat (a known baddie in red meat). Food labels, including Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA), were once considered annoying coloured spots getting in the way of a good meal. Now, instead, I take note of ingredients and these GDAs, choosing healthier options where possible. Secondly it's because I'm training for a half-marathon distance event, coming up in three months' time – so diet is a key part of the training.

Yet, there is another factor now impacting people's diets and choices of food: virtual water. Many of you will be aware of the amount of embedded water in products and the often quoted figure that it takes 15,000 liters of water to produce 1 kilo of beef.

To date I don't think such stark statistics would have impacted on shopping habits when people are at shops or supermarkets. Are consumers thinking about the water footprint of a product before making a conscience effort to buy it? Probably not. Decisions are driven by price, taste, impulse and brand loyalty. Even carbon mile labels aren't enough to break these habits. And that's certainly one topic that has been in the public eye longer than virtual water.

Yet a new report hopes to change these perceptions and provoke more discussion. Called 'Feeding a thirsty world: Challenges and opportunities for a water and food secure world', the Stockholm International Water Institute's latest report addresses water scarcity and food production.

It states that with 70% of water withdrawals used in agriculture, growing more food to feed an additional two billion people by 2050 will place greater pressure on water and land.

Most of us are aware that we're exhausting the world's resources at an alarming pace, but what is the report recommending we do? Improvements in on-farm water efficiency; reductions in losses and waste in the food supply chain; enhanced response networks and early warning systems in agricultural emergencies are all recommended.

The UN recommends that we should all follow a healthier, sustainable diet and consume less water-intensive products. This is as well as reduce the 30% of wasted food which is produced and improve current production methods. The theme of the World Water Day earlier this year was even "Water and Food Security" to try and hammer home the message.

Nor should these global, political challenges be seen as out of reach from the water sector, including technology providers.

As WWi featured earlier this year in its Middle Eastern spotlight, a small group of farming settlements in the Negev region, Israel, solved the problem of inadequate freshwater sources. The farmers pooled their resources together and funded an effluent reuse system, which was situated next to a nearby wastewater treatment plant. Filtration and UV technology was provided by a major water purification company and reused water was piped to the fields.

In conclusion, it's worth noting a comment made back in 1974 at the first World Food Summit by US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. He boldly said: "No child will go to bed hungry within ten years."

This aim/prediction couldn't have been more wrong. Today there remains one billion undernourished people. This raises the question that if the worldwide population will reach its predicted nine billion by 2050, how on earth will everyone be fed?

And if agriculture is increased, even if super crops are developed which require less water to be grown in arid climates, what will this increase mean for the water industry? It's certainly worth thinking about the next time you tuck into a meal.