Here is a different side of the agricultural debate, by British writer Fred Pearce, in a journal at Yale University, which emphasizes water as another key element in our handful of global crises — energy, food, water and global warming, all of which are interlocked and self-reinforcing.
After decades in the doldrums, food prices have been soaring this year, causing more misery for the world’s poor than any credit crunch. The geopolitical shockwaves have spread round the world, with food riots in
The immediate cause is declining grain stocks, which have encouraged speculators, hoarders, and panic-buyers. But what are the underlying trends that have sown the seeds for this perfect food storm?
Biofuels are part of it, clearly. A quarter of
But there is something else going on that has hardly been mentioned, and that some believe is the great slow-burning, and hopelessly underreported, resource crisis of the 21st century: water.
Climate change, overconsumption and the alarmingly inefficient use of this most basic raw material are all to blame. I wrote a book three years ago titled When The Rivers Run Dry. It probed why the Yellow River in China, the Rio Grande and Colorado in the United States, the Nile in Egypt, the Indus in Pakistan, the Amu Darya in Central Asia, and many others are all running on empty. The confident blue lines in a million atlases simply do not tell the truth about rivers sucked dry, for the most part, to irrigate food crops.
We are using these rivers to death. And we are also pumping out underground water reserves almost everywhere in the world. With two-thirds of the water abstracted from nature going to irrigate crops — a figure that rises above 90 percent in many arid countries — water shortages equal food shortages.
Consider the two underlying causes of the current crisis over world food prices: falling supplies from some of the major agricultural regions that supply world markets, and rising demand in booming economies like
Why falling supplies? Farm yields per hectare have been stagnating in many countries for a while now. The green revolution that caused yields to soar 20 years ago may be faltering. But the immediate trigger, according to most analysts, has been droughts, particularly in
Why rising demand?
A few years ago, the American agronomist and environmentalist Lester Brown wrote a book called Who Will Feed China?: Wake Up Call for a Small Planet. It predicted just this.
Some press reports have recently suggested that
The same is true of
Even this elaborate hand-dug well in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu is dry, a result of over-pumping the underground aquifers.
Underground water is pumped for irrigation in
With river water fully used, Indian farmers have been trying to increase supplies by tapping underground reserves. In the last 15 years, they have bought a staggering 20 million Yamaha pumps to suck water from beneath their fields. Tushaar Shah, director of the International Water Management Institute’s groundwater research station in
“We are living hand-to-mouth,” says D.P. Singh, president of the All India Grain Exporters Association, who blames water shortages for faltering grain production. Last year
More and more countries are up against the limits of food production because they are up against the limits of water supply. Most of the
A map of world food trade increasingly looks like a map of the water haves and have-nots, because in recent years the global food trade has become almost a proxy trade in water — or rather, the water needed to grow food. “Virtual water,” some economists call it. The trade has kept the hungry in dry lands fed. But now that system is breaking down, because there are too many buyers and not enough sellers.
According to estimates by UNESCO’s hydrology institute, the world’s largest net supplier of virtual water until recently was
The largest gross exporter of virtual water is the
The current water shortages should not mark an absolute limit to food production around the world. But it should do three things. It should encourage a rethinking of biofuels, which are themselves major water guzzlers. It should prompt an expanding trade in food exported from countries that remain in water surplus, such as
On a trip to
For too long, we have seen water as a cheap and unlimited resource. Those days are coming to an end — not just in dry places, but everywhere. For if the current world food crisis shows anything, it is that in an era of global trade in “virtual water,” local water shortages can reverberate throughout the world — creating higher food prices and food shortages everywhere.