Snapshot

Why agriculture holds the key to tackling water waste


Water is a precious resource. Ensuring we have enough water for a growing global population in a time of climate change is one of the most important challenges of our time.

But in our view, it’s impossible to talk about water without also talking about food. Agriculture uses 65% of the world’s fresh water, but almost half of it is currently wasted. Making our food and water systems sustainable requires a holistic approach.

water usage

The growing global population also puts pressure on the food system. Irrigation is one way to solve this; agricultural yields double when irrigation is used, rather than relying on rainfall. But the challenge is to ensure that this is done efficiently so that water is not wasted.

This is where technology has a crucial role to play. Greater investment is needed in irrigation and drainage systems. It’s not enough just to build such systems; making sure they are adequately maintained is crucial to keeping them running efficiently.

Meanwhile, investment in desalination plants is also critical given the limited supply of fresh water in many regions globally.

Then there are more advanced technologies. For example, soil moisture sensors can be used to check exactly how much water is needed, and when, for crops.

The whole water management system is one where we expect demand to increase substantially. Recycling the 45% of water that is currently wasted will help the global food and water system become more sustainable.

And it’s not just water that is wasted. Food waste is a huge problem and, of course, when food is wasted, the water that was used in its production is also wasted. Around 44% of harvested crops are lost before they reach the consumer. Again, technology is a crucial enabler in reducing that waste.

Using water more efficiently is clearly part of the answer to making our water system more sustainable. There are also ways to simply use less water in agriculture, and this can happen via changes to diets. Consumers, rather than food producers, can be the driving force here.

It’s increasingly well understood that livestock farming – especially for beef – is extremely resource intensive in terms of the amount of land required. Beef cattle are also responsible for a large amount of the harmful gas emissions from the food industry. But beef production additionally consumes a vastly higher amount of fresh water than other sources of protein, such as pulses, as the green bars on the chart below show.

resource intensity per tonne of protein consumed

Again, this just goes to show how the problem of water usage cannot be seen in isolation but has to be tackled alongside food. Both systems need to be made more sustainable as demand grows.

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