Hamish John Appleby / IWMI

Can our environment survive our food needs? We asked 11 eminent water scientists

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

As the world marks World Environment Day this week, we ponder the links between our natural environment and our struggling food systems. Growing populations put increasing strains on food systems, deplete resources, and damage and pollute natural ecosystems. And a changing climate exacerbates weather patterns, putting food systems at further risk.

A common link among all these challenges is water. Water irrigates crops. Cities require more and more for industrial and domestic use. Growing populations churn out more wastewater. And more extreme weather means too much or not enough water – frequent droughts or floods.

Given this array of challenges, we asked 11 eminent scientists from International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and its CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE): how can we produce enough food to feed the world – without destroying our environment?  Here’s some of their advice:

Food solutions are ecosystem solutions

“We need to be thinking more about ecosystem-based resource management. We need to think more about wetlands as ecosystem service for flood protection, or communities around these areas will become much more vulnerable to floods, loss of life, loss of cattle, loss of homesteads, all sorts of things. So the food secure future is in jeopardy because of the lack of thinking about some of the joined-up thinking of ecosystem-based management of watersheds.”  ~ Alan Nicol, Strategic Program Leader – Promoting Sustainable Growth, Ethiopia

“We know that food production needs to increase. We know that there is going to be urbanization so we have to intensify production to feed the growing urban demands. We know there is consumer habit changes. So we know that there has to be this intensification process. And we know that irrigation needs to be a critical part of that. However, with that intensification and irrigation comes water pollution. So what we are seeing are declines in water quality…and that is the huge threat of sustainable intensification through changed agricultural water management.” ~ Nicole Lefore, Senior Project Manager – Research For Development, South Africa

The developed world needs to scale back

“Presently, the world is not living in a sustainable way. We use more resources than the earth can provide and the biggest challenge the world will face is to change this around. Climate change is also a part of it but it’s a much bigger issue than that. If the whole developing world is to follow the path of the developed world, we will need three planets to provide those kinds of resources.” ~ Chris Dickens, Principal Researcher and Head of Office, South Africa

“One of the things that is quite critical but we tend to ignore because we don’t want to deal with it is the impact of western cultures on the world. We (in the Global North) are the highest consumers. We are importing virtual water through food. In that sense, we give revenue back to developing countries, but it’s often skewed so we get the main benefits and they get less for the resources than we are taking. Or we outsource the pollution to other countries and they have to deal with it while we get the food, clothes and other products.  And we act like we are doing so well, but we are actually impacting developing countries who are already disadvantaged. It’s this vicious circle where we try to mend things, but it’s not changing the fundamentals.” ~ Karen Villhoth, Research Group Leader – Resilient and Sustainable Groundwater, South Africa

Think distribution

“The matching of availability and demand is skewed all over the world. Just the fact that there is so much food waste – something like a third – and we still have a problem with world hunger. It’s because the geographical spread is different – where we have surplus or deficit is not in the same place, so it’s not so easy to just transfer the food. And it’s the same with water.” ~ Luna Bharati, Principal Researcher – Hydrology and Water Resources, Nepal

 “Focus on the people who don’t get proper food now. Currently, we waste a lot of food and people who produce are the most vulnerable to it. Most people in rural areas still have to walk miles to collect water…” ~ Barbara van Koppen, Rural Sociologist and Gender Expert, South Africa

“We need to use our resources more wisely… we as the world. I think sustainability is the thing. I think we can feed people in the world with what we have, but it’s about sustainability and equitable distribution. Some of us are hogging things. There are enough water, food and energy for all of us.” ~ Liza Debevec, Researcher – Gender and Governance, MARIS Network Coordinator, Ethiopia

 “There is not one golden bullet, unless we get theoretical. Theoretically, there is enough food for that many people (nine billion) – it’s a matter of figuring out how to distribute it at a low price while keeping it fresh, especially within regions – how do we avoid one-third of all food produced for human use getting wasted or lost each year?” ~ Pay Drechsel, Strategic Program Leader – Rural-Urban Linkages, Sri Lanka

We need technology – but not only technology

“I think it’s technological advances that are going to really change things in the not too distant future. One in particular – solar energy as replacement for hydropower. One thing with this is that it is not the silver bullet. We have to figure out how to integrate the solar and hydro together and that won’t be easy.” ~ Matthew McCartney, Research Group Leader – Water Future, Growth and Natural Capital (WFU), Laos

“It is not easy to just define one thing as the ticket to ending world hunger and poverty. We are connected virtually more and more which is an exciting thing. The farmers know the market prices from their cell phones now so the middle man can’t take the biggest cut. And more and more, we are also physically connected which is providing more access to food and resources. So the fact that the world is getting more connected virtually and physically gives me hope.” ~ Luna Bharati, Principal Researcher – Hydrology and Water Resources, Nepal

“Given our current technologies and knowledge – agricultural intensification, experiences in waste management, impact assessments and political commitments in different countries – I think feeding nine billion people is achievable. I am very optimistic that by 2050, the food gap will be closed.” ~ Amare Haileslassie, Head of Office, East Africa, Ethiopia

Ultimately, it’s about the systems and institutions

“I’m a political scientist. I believe in institutions. I do believe that institutional reform and institutional creation and strengthening has to be a major part of this. We focus a lot on technology aspects and we focus a lot on biophysical impact – and those are really important, but without the institutions to help us regulate, we are going to face even deeper crises than what we have now. And that contributes to the water quality, water security, and therefore safe drinking water.”  ~ Nicole Lefore, Senior Project Manager – Research For Development, South Africa

“We need to build more equity into global food systems. Massive agriculture subsidies in the U.S. and E.U. combine to create gluts of resources, massive overproduction, and suppressed prices so that I can buy food more cheaply in London than I can in Uganda. Inequality in the global food-trading system is partly due to a massive subsidization in agriculture in rich economies. Whereas the subsidies to help people in greatest need should be in developing countries where farmers are struggling against climate change, pests, lack of inputs and investment. Rebalancing the inequities in global food systems and finding ways to open up new markets will be really important in feeding nine billion.” ~ Alan Nicol, Strategic Program Leader – Promoting Sustainable Growth, Ethiopia

Most of all… have some hope!

“I’m optimistic when it comes to food. I believe in human ingenuity. We can be self-destructive but occasionally we get it right!” ~ Arif Anwar, Head of Office and Principal Researcher – Irrigation, Pakistan

All quotes were curated from interviews undertaken at IWMI’s recent Annual Research Meeting. Thank you to all participating IWMI researchers and our team of interviewers. Some quotes have been slightly edited for grammar and clarity.

Thrive blog is a space for independent thought and aims to stimulate discussion among sustainable agriculture researchers and the public. Blogs are facilitated by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), but reflect the opinions and information of the authors only and not necessarily those of WLE and its donors or partners. WLE and partners are supported by CGIAR Fund Donors, including ACIARDFIDDGISSDC and others.

Add new comment