A joint blog with Brian Richter, of the Nature Conservancy.
World Food Day came and went from this week’s calendar, but for nearly a million people, hunger remains. Each day, one in eight people around the world struggles to find their next meal. Their food security is as ephemeral as the clouds that bring water for their crops.
There is a recent trace of silver lining in hunger’s dark cloud, however. In the early 1990s, nearly a quarter of the people living in developing regions were malnourished. Today that percentage has dropped to 15%.
A good deal of that progress can be attributed to the efforts of the 189 countries and more than 20 international organizations that signed onto the UN’s “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs) in 2000. One of those goals expressed the intent to halve, by 2015, the proportion of people suffering from hunger, relative to a 1990 baseline. With more than a year remaining, that goal is now well within reach, a success story that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki‑Moon has called “the most successful global anti-poverty push in history”.
Unfortunately, 840 million people are still not celebrating.
It will take an extraordinary new push to bring these millions into the hunger-free party. Most of the easy wins are already in hand. We will add another three billion mouths to feed by 2030, most of them in the developing regions of Africa, Latin America, southern Asia, and the Middle East. It remains to be seen whether the countries rounding the last corner of the MDG race will have the stamina to continue. It’s like hitting the finish ribbon of a marathon run and being told you’ll have to run it again.
To make matters worse, climate change is almost certain to snarl up the best-laid plans. Even small increases in temperature, small decreases in rainfall, or just slightly-longer intervals between the rains could be a crop killer, destroying the hope of harvest.
Many solutions to hunger have been offered, but there is a common thread running through all of them. To quote the American statesman Jesse Jackson: “We must keep hope alive”.
The hope for growing more food resides in water.
Of all the water that is extracted from rivers, lakes, and aquifers and not returned to those sources after use – referred to as “consumptive use” – more than 90% goes to irrigated agriculture. That irrigation water enables nearly half of all food production today.
The answer to our present and future food needs, however, is not to pull more water out of rivers and aquifers for irrigation. Across much of the temperate latitudes where so much of our global food production takes place, existing water sources are already tapped out.
Instead, our best hope lies in our ability to use water more efficiently: We need to get much more “crop per drop”.
Consider this: Saving just 15-20% of the water presently being consumptively used in irrigated agriculture would free up as much water as is being consumed in all the cities of the world. That saved water could feed the future. According to the International Water Management Institute, which led the most comprehensive assessment of water use in agriculture undertaken to date, we can meet food needs to 2050 with 13% more water. The solution then, is to squeeze water savings out of existing irrigation and use those savings to grow more food.
We do not need a technological breakthrough to save water in agriculture. It already exists. Let us illustrate with some examples from work that our two organizations – SABMiller and The Nature Conservancy – have been pursuing.
Beginning four years ago, The Nature Conservancy, working closely with Idaho farmers and the MillerCoors brewing company, began experimenting with ways to reduce water use on barley and alfalfa farms. Right away, the partners were able to gain a water savings of 20%, using readily-available but water-thrifty irrigation technologies such as “variable rate irrigation”. This watering approach uses automated sprinklers that precisely apply a differing amount of water to different areas of a farm field, depending on the underlying soils and their water-holding capacities. Similarly, the Conservancy’s work with farmers in other places such as Georgia in the US has consistently delivered savings of 15-20% or more. Importantly, these efficient irrigation practices do more than save water: Energy costs have been reduced almost by half, and crop yields have increased.
In India, SABMiller’s local subsidiary has initiated a project with local smallholder farmers in Neemrana, Rajasthan – an area currently experiencing severe water stress – in order to help manage water demand in the region. Similar to the US model, the partnership initially worked with a small group of farmers, providing training in “smart irrigation” techniques based on improved soil nutrition and crop varieties. Results over the past three years demonstrate that farmers have on average: increased their productivity per hectare by 17-34%, increased their disposable incomes by 18%, and reduced their water use by 13%. While there is still much work to do, the program now reaches approximately 3000 smallholder farmers in the district, bringing benefits to the entire agricultural community and to the environment.
Being water-thrifty is proving to be one of the best strategies for adapting to a fickle and changing climate as well. Farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin of southeastern Australia endured a horrific “Millennium Drought” from 1997-2009 that left them with 40-60% less water available for irrigation. By rapidly boosting water efficiency on farms, the regional farm economy was able to weather the drought with revenue losses of just 20%.
These are but a few of the thousands of examples of similar water-saving efforts taking place on farms around the world. The big challenge, of course, is to moving from the demonstration scale to a level of adoption that can change the water and food game at the scale of countries and regions.
In this respect we believe there is great potential for cities and corporations to form partnerships with farmers to save water for mutual benefit. Half of the global population lives in cities today; by 2050 that percentage will rise to 70%. Those of us living in cities are by far the greatest consumers of agricultural products. It is clearly in our interest to help ensure that farmers are not only able to meet today’s food and fiber needs, but can stay abreast of growing needs.
Invest in farmers and their ability to produce more crop per drop. By so doing, you can help feed the world.