UNITED NATIONS, May 23 (IPS) - The ongoing food crisis, characterized by growing shortages and rising prices of staple commodities, has far reaching implications for the world's scarce water resources, says a new study released here.
"More food is likely to come at a cost of more water use in agriculture," according to the report titled "Saving Water: From Field to Fork".
The emerging challenges facing the food sector include growing water scarcity; unacceptably high levels of under-nourishment; the proliferation of people who are overweight or obese; and of food that is lost or wasted in society.
"All these challenges mean that a narrow perspective on food security in terms of production and supply is no longer sufficient," the study notes.
It's time to take a broader perspective incorporating the steps from growing crops in the field to consuming a meal at home: "A field to fork perspective."
Jointly authored by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), in collaboration with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), the 26-page study points out that water will be a key constraint to food production -- "unless we change the way we think and act about water resources."
Anders Berntell of SIWI points out that food production and agriculture were the biggest global users of water. On average, about 70 percent of all water extracted was going into agriculture.
"As people's incomes rise in developing nations, they are changing to more meat-intensive diets," Berntell told IPS.
In many cases, he argued, this is good, up to a certain level, because they need proteins in their diet. But beyond that, it creates a problem.
According to Berntell, every calorie of food you take in translates into one litre of water. He pointed out that red meat from cattle is more water-intensive because it takes up to 15 cubic metres of water to produce one kilogramme of beef -- if the cattle are grain-fed.
"This is a huge difference from a vegetarian diet where as low as 2.0 cubic metres of water per kilogramme are needed to produce certain vegetables," Berntell noted.
David Molden of IWMI, and one of the co-authors of the study, said if there was no change in current practices in food production and consumption, it is likely that twice as much water as that used today would be required by 2015 to produce the world's required food.
"Thus, the challenge was to reduce the amount of water use," he told reporters last week.
The study says the sheer magnitude of losses, wastage and over-consumption means that the international community has the ability and option to reduce gross food demand and agricultural water supply without affecting food security.
Most losses occur after food is produced in the field. Globally, the amount of water withdrawn to produce lost and wasted food could fill a lake of 1,300 kilometres, about half the size of Lake Victoria.
In the United States, people throw away an estimated 30 percent of all food, corresponding to 40,000 billion liters of irrigation water: enough water to meet the household needs of 500 million people, according to the study.
"The amount of water that can be saved by reducing food waste is much larger than that saved by low-flush toilets and water-saving washing machines," the report said. "It's time for us to move beyond thinking about how we meet quantities, and to start looking at the type of foods we produce and how we benefit from them."
Berntell told IPS that the wastage of food in most rich countries could be in the order of about 50 percent. In developing countries, however, waste is due mostly to problems of storage, transportation, rat infestation, and lack of refrigeration.
Reducing food loss and wastage lessens water needs in agriculture, the report says.
Early this year, there were reports of a U.S. meat packing company voluntarily recalling some 143.3 million pounds (about 65 million kgs) of raw and frozen beef products because plant employees had mistreated cattle on the way to the slaughter house.
But the unreported side of the story, says the report, is about the water wastage in the production of that beef.
Berntell said the world is also facing the paradox of more people suffering both from obesity and from hunger.
"There is enough food for everyone in this world. The problem is a matter of distribution and management," he declared.
Asked if there was waste in the seemingly more prudent Scandinavian countries, he said: "In Sweden, where I come from, food wastage is as high as about 25 percent."
Obesity is not a significant problem in Scandinavian countries yet, he added, "But we see it coming all over the world."
It has been a big issue in the United States. "But we can also see it in other parts of the world, including Europe, and in a number of developing countries, especially in big cities with fast food chains," Berntell said.
He said it was wrong for people with rising incomes in developing nations to virtually say: "I have raised myself from the level of poverty, and now I can afford to buy the kind of food the Western world consumes."
© 2008 Inter Press Service