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Rivers and Lakes

Food, Water and Nature: Can We Have All Three?

The water we drink each day is just a fraction of the water we consume. We actually use vast amounts of “hidden water” through the food we eat. For example, it takes 150 gallons of water to create a loaf of bread alone.

With global population projected to reach nine billion by 2050*, we are facing some very difficult math. With this growth, demand for food will double. Yes, double. That’s because more people will have more money for food – which is a very good thing. But that also means more people who will eat like Americans: more processed food and more meat, which require far more water to produce than simple grain and vegetable diets.

As a conservation organization, we know that nature hangs in the balance. In a competition for water and land, nature always loses.

Nature.org spoke with Michael Reuter, Director of the North America Freshwater Program and Great Rivers Partnership, about the link between water and food and what role the Conservancy can play in finding a better way forward.

Nature.org:

There are 150 gallons of water in a loaf of bread? How can that possibly be?

Michael Reuter:

That’s true. Many people don’t realize it, but that’s true for most of the food we eat. For example, think of all the products we have that contain corn. A bushel of corn (or about 56 pounds of corn) takes roughly 22 inches of rain to produce. And if it’s grown in an area without rain, it will require that water from irrigation. It’s not surprising then that more than 70 percent of water used worldwide is for agriculture.*

Given the expectation of two billion more people by 2050, humanity is facing a big challenge: how do we produce more food and other goods without irreparably damaging – or completely depleting – our natural resources that we depend on for a whole range of benefits?

Nature.org:

So what’s the answer to that question?

Michael Reuter:

The good news is that we do have options. The challenge is the transition. We have to continue to meet demand while managing a transition to a more efficient food production system that can decrease – or at least freeze – the agricultural “footprint” (the impact of agriculture on nature and water) while producing more food.

For starters, we have to be smart about where we produce our food. It doesn’t make sense to grow crops like corn in areas that don’t receive a lot of rain because the corn eventually soaks up valuable groundwater that people may otherwise need to extract for drinking water.

Instead, we have to look for areas that are already under production and are ideally suited to increase crops. Those are the areas we should focus on to maximize agricultural production. For instance, most of the corn belt of the Central United States receives ample rainfall to produce corn and other crops without impacting groundwater supplies. Much of that region receives 35 inches of rain or more annually – enough to meet the needs of corn, people, and rivers if managed well.

We also have the advantage of industry investments in technology, which result in better farming practices. I’m optimistic that, through technology, we will find ways to increase our productivity per acre. It’s being referred to as “more crop per drop.” When we partner with the agriculture industry, we each have the chance to learn from one another.

Nature.org:

What gives you hope that we will find a better way forward?

Michael Reuter:

I see that many of the big players throughout the agricultural supply chain are stepping up and making serious commitments to do that. There’s an acknowledgement of what we know and what we don’t know, and there’s a willingness to work together.

Companies are responding to consumer pressure for products that are sustainably produced. This is a big driver. So, we have to be able to measure sustainability in terms of how much carbon is produced, how much sediment is lost, how much fertilizer is applied, etc. We have a lot of that information already. The next step is to determine the agricultural impact on the biodiversity of an area or the water quality of a river downstream from where food or fiber is produced.

Once we have good answers to these questions, landowners will have a better idea of the part they need to play, and policymakers will better understand the types of incentives that can support the transition to a food production system that makes less of an impact on the natural world and all that it provides to people.

Nature.org:

What would success actually look like?

Michael Reuter:

When I think of success in sustainable agriculture, I want to see that we’re producing food and fiber in the right places and that other places, like much of the biologically rich Amazon rainforests, are left untouched. In the areas that are under production, we would see greater efficiency – better management of water, the right application of fertilizers and chemicals, and the best tillage practices, as examples. It’s this efficiency that allows us to freeze the footprint.

Places like the Mississippi would have restored wetlands and connected floodplains that support migrating waterfowl and more natural water flows.

At the same time we would have intensely farmed areas to meet the global demand for food and fiber. We would actively manage to find that balance, aiming to work in harmony with ecological systems rather than accepting a drain on our natural resources.

By using the best available science and a serious commitment to collaboration we can do things very differently than we have in the past. We can take better care of nature while feeding a growing, hungry world. It won’t be something that happens overnight, but I’m increasingly confident because more and more people are coming to the table to work together to find a better way forward.


* United Nations report…

**International Water Resources Association: Water International, Volume 25, March 2000

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