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Water is central to our food system. It irrigates crops, hydrates livestock, and is even used as a mode of transportation to get food products moved from one region to the other. Not only does water grow crops to sustain communities at a local level, it also fuels supplies for international trade and economic growth. Water certainly is the lifeblood of society and without it, our food system would cease to exist. And that is why water shortages worldwide are increasingly becoming a concern – we simply cannot survive without enough water to produce the food we eat.
It is estimated that as soon as 2025, two-thirds of the world population will face water shortages. That is two-thirds of the world population that doesn’t have enough water to drink, maintain adequate hygiene, provide proper sanitation, and grow food. It is safe to say that water scarcity has the potential to create a disaster for mankind in the future.
While projections for future water shortages are concerning, the reality is that many regions across the planet are already facing water shortage issues. And while this is bad news for many aspects of everyday life, it is the food system that is taking a massive hit from water shortages.
Take a look at how several countries around the world are dealing with their own water scarcity problems, and how they are struggling to produce enough food in the process.
If you’re a coffee drinker, you’re in for a doozy. Water shortages are spelling bad news for coffee producers worldwide, including Brazil which has been the leading supplier of java for the last century. A staggering 35 percent of coffee beans originate in Brazil. But a drought that began in January 2014 caused coffee production to drop 20 percent that year. And given that coffee is not harvested once a year but rather throughout the year, stress on the plants will stunt their growth and continue to have an impact on production into the future, even once the drought hopefully eases. While some may argue coffee isn’t an important food crop entirely necessary for sustenance, it still does hold a place in the food system as a widely distributed good as well as a crop that provides a livelihood to many individuals worldwide. Water shortages act as a direct threat to that.
Coffee isn’t the only Brazilian crop hit by the drought. Perhaps surprisingly, Brazil is actually the largest producer of soybeans in the world. China has shifted to being the number one importer of Brazil’s soybeans as water for soybean production in Asia becomes more scarce. And while Brazil has historically had enough water for soybean production, the country has seen declining production numbers for soy due to recent drought. Water rationing for citizens is already taking place in some regions, and food security is being challenged by the lack of available water to grow crops important to the world’s food system, soybeans included.
The United States is currently facing a problem of epic proportions when it comes to food production in the face of drought. Water shortages have gripped the Western U.S., and especially California where a third of the country’s vegetables and two thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts are grown. With 80 percent of the state’s water going to agriculture, the shortage has had a huge impact on California’s food production. In 2014, farmers planted 25 percent less rice than the year before, and 34 percent less corn in response to the drought. With the decreased production of many crops, prices for items such as broccoli, berries, lettuce and melons grown in California increased. With California playing such a major role in providing the rest of the country with its produce, the drought is threatening to upend a system that has historically provided enough fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts to the nation. These healthy and nutritious foods become less available and less affordable, especially to the disadvantaged members of society.
Over the recent years, Afghanistan has faced a series of droughts that have threatened its food security. By 2001, a three tear-old drought had caused a famine that depleted the necessary cereal grains needed to feed the country’s population by half. Animal agriculture was also impacted by the decrease in cereal crops, and poppy farms had to be abandoned as irrigation was not available. The job losses resulted in five million Afghans having little no or no access to food.
Last year in the Ghor providence of Afghanistan, residents began fleeing their homes in response to the food insecurity caused by drought. Water in the region decreased by 60 percent, making drinking water and irrigation water much less available. And because 80 percent of the providence’s people rely on agriculture as a livelihood, many lost their source of employment and thus ability to even pay for food.
Ethiopia has seen a drought-induced food crises similar to that in Afghanistan. In 2011, Ethiopia was in the midst of the worst drought the country had seen in six decades. The resulting widespread hunger was staggering. Roughly 700,000 were in need of food aid and medical workers in the area noted the sharp increase in severely malnourished children they were treating. While the country continues to yo-yo in and out of drought and famine cycles, the resulting sanitation and health issues only compound the problem. With only 21 percent of Ethiopians having access to adequate sanitation, the spread of disease and waterborne illness in the country is all too real for an already undernourished population.
The Big Picture
We may not “run out” of water on planet earth as it will still be maintained in one form or another. But fresh water may become less accessible to us as we withdraw it at unsustainable rates and continue to carelessly use it. With unstable water supplies, we also face unstable food supplies. Production levels will drop and there will not be enough food to go around. Prices stand to increase as supplies fall, making the first victims in the crises those with the least money. Beyond food availability, international trade and business, as well as, the livelihoods of those that grow and produce food are also put at risk. The impacts of this issue become far-reaching, touching many aspects of life and society all over the planet and forcing us into survival mode. Yes, it is very important to recognize the importance of water within our food system.
Do Your Part
Global water scarcity is a massive problem and not one that any single individual can address on their own. However, your efforts paired with those of other concerned individuals does stand a chance in making fresh water sources more stable and in helping solve food security problems in the process. By addressing your personal water footprint, you can help ensure that fresh water resources are used sparingly and efficiently, reserving it for important uses like food production.
There are a variety of ways to lower your water use to help ensure the future our food system, but interestingly, one of the best ways to cut your water footprint comes in the form of your diet. On a whole, agriculture sucks up around 70 percent of the world’s fresh water supplies and one-third of that goes to irrigating feed crops for livestock. That all translates into the amount of virtual water that is hidden in our diets. Did you know that a person who eats meat and animal products uses on average, 162, 486 more gallons of water than someone who adheres to a plant-based diet? If you send animal products packing, in converse, you can save that many gallons of water annually.
Looking at the breadth of our global water scarcity issue, it is clear that if we want to ensure a sustainable future for our food supply, we need to start taking into consideration how our personal choices impact the world around us. As a defining voice in the space, One Green Planet has made it a point to draw the connections between our individual food choices and the broader impact they have on the planet. As Nil Zacharias, One Green Planet’s co-founder puts it, “If we want to have any hope for a sustainable food system that can feed our growing population, we need to exercise our power to be a part of the solution with every food choice we make.” Starting with the #EatForThePlanet campaign and our commitment to promoting plant-based foods, One Green Planet has worked to empower individuals to see the incredible opportunity they have three times a day to craft a better food system.
Plant-based foods are the future of sustainable food and the best part is they are already readily available. Join One Green Planet’s #EatForThePlanet campaign and start making a difference with your food today! Together we can create a more sustainable food system, one meal at a time.
Featured Image Source: US Department of Agriculture/Flickr