"Put water at the heart of food systems"

8 minutes

Food and water are inextricably linked. Without water, the world would have nothing to eat. But will there still be enough water for food production in the near future? In the run-up to World Food Day 2023, Wageningen scientists have claimed that it is high time that more attention was paid to the essential role of water in the food system.

Some might think that water is abundantly available for food production, but this idea is in urgent need of revision. More and more areas of the world are experiencing long periods of drought, often followed by floods and the subsequent destruction of crops. Other activities within food systems have also put a strain on water availability, which has led to water pollution. And then there is the growing problem of salinisation caused by rising sea levels, reduced precipitation and increased evaporation. Crops in delta areas and arid regions are particularly sensitive to this.

Heading for a worst-case scenario

A study by Chris Seijger and colleagues at Wageningen University & Research suggests that water resources were significantly depleted between 2000 and 2020. According to the researchers, this was caused by a global increase in the use of water and agricultural land. The main reason for this was lagging water efficiency improvements in food systems. The dismal conclusion was that the world was heading for the worst-case scenario: that twice as much water and arable land would be used by 2050 in comparison to 2000. The researchers claimed that the solution lay in a radically different way of dealing with water and food. And more specifically in eating less meat, wasting less food and building more resilient food systems.

Water conference

It was expected that the growing problem of water availability for food production would be given plenty of attention at the United Nations Water Conference in New York in March 2023, but this was not the case. Only one out of around 120 sub-sessions at this conference was dedicated to nutritional value while only one sub-session was devoted to the role of water in food systems. This last session was organised by Wageningen University & Research. This session, Make Water Pivotal in Food Systems, focused on giving the topic of water and food higher priority on the international agenda. Team Leader of Water & Food Karin Andeweg helped to organise the session and feels that this objective was achieved: "The session generated a lot of enthusiasm among the participants. We saw that it was a revelation for many people to gain insight into how big the problem is. In policy, research and practice, water and food often receive separate attention, even though they are inextricably linked."

Co-organiser Petra Hellegers, who is also Professor of Water Resources Management, noticed during the conference that there was little understanding of the responsibilities in the chain: "In our session, we put water at the centre of the overall food system. Everyone knows that a lot of water is needed to produce food, but it is often not clear who should take which responsibility when it comes to reducing water consumption in the food chain. Consumers can do their bit by throwing away less food and eating less meat. Agribusiness can choose to withdraw less water for agricultural exports from countries where water is scarce. And governments can develop sensible policies for using water more responsibly."

Harnessing momentum

The realisation that all parties must take responsibility to reduce the footprint of water in the food system was widely recognised during the sub-session. The initiative taken by Wageningen University & Research has led to the establishment of a global working group. This working group will work on an action and information agenda to highlight the role of water in food systems. Eighteen organisations are represented in this Global Working Group on Water and Food. Among them are major institutions such as the World Bank and FAO, knowledge institutions, companies and conservation organisations. Andeweg: "We want to take advantage of the momentum and work together to ensure that this issue is high on the international agenda. It seems that the message is getting through. Our session focused on making water pivotal. We have now seen this word repeated in several instances. During the Stockholm Water Week, which was held last August, we also talked about the pivotal role of water. It seems that the attention that we’ve drawn to this theme has set something in motion."

Salinisation hotspots

Scientists at Wageningen University & Research have been working on this theme for some time. For instance, Food and Water Security has been one of the knowledge base (KB) programmes since 2019. According to KB Programme lead Anthony Verschoor: "The beauty of this is that within this programme, technical and socio-economic scientists from different Wageningen institutes are collaborating on this theme. For example, the programme looks at how different actors in the food system can be influenced to combat food waste as well as water waste." A more technically-oriented study in his programme shows the global locations where saline agricultural land will be developed in the coming years. Rice and maize are currently being grown in many of these 'salinisation hotspots'; these are crops that have a low resistance to saline conditions. Verschoor: "In the Mekong Delta, rice was being grown twice a year, but one cultivation period has been replaced with shrimp cultivation. You don't come across this kind of adaptation as much. The question is then what governments will do: will they ignore the problem or will they realise that they have to take measures to adapt to salinisation?"

Melting glaciers

Wageningen researchers have also collaborated on a comprehensive report on the impact that melting glaciers, snow and ice have on rice production in downstream areas. About a third of the world's total rice production depends on water from the Himalayas. According to Hester Biemans, Himalayan glaciers face the risk of losing 80 per cent of their volume. This will have major implications for rice farmers, who depend on the availability of river water from the Himalayas. Another study by Biemans and her colleague Wouter Smolenaars revealed that disappearing glaciers, combined with changes in rainfall, could have major consequences for the way in which farmers work. Due to global warming, glaciers and snow melt earlier in the year. There may not even be a water peak at all with little or no snowfall. Several climate scenarios are already showing this, even the more positive ones. Farmers need to anticipate on these developments in their water use and cropping patterns.

Water scarcity in Jordan

Jordan’s climate type differs from that of the Himalayas. On behalf of the Dutch embassy in Jordan, WUR organised policy dialogues on the challenges surrounding water scarcity in this Middle Eastern country. While the demand for water is increasing exponentially, the availability of renewable water sources is decreasing. In the most optimistic forecast, Jordan's water demand by 2050 will be as much as four times greater than the amount of water that is sustainably available. Demand from households and industry can be met through the desalination of water from the Red Sea and agreements with other countries. For agriculture, however, this means that the country will need to switch mostly, if not entirely, to treated wastewater, which could be costly.

The deserving role of water

Hellegers believes that all of the studies that were cited have led to the same conclusion: "Water should be central in both food systems and policies. Not only in agricultural and climate policies, but also in trade policies, for example, because an enormous amount of water is consumed in the trade chain." Andeweg agrees: "If you would make water pivotal, it may well lead to agricultural land around the world being managed very differently. By retaining water at times when it is available, or by sowing earlier in the year because water is available then. We need to move towards integrated policies, in which water is given the role it deserves."