Over-consumption is bleeding the earth dry

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A new report argues that over-consumption is profoundly affecting
the global supply of water, threatening food production in the
future, writes Anthony Fletcher.

Launched at the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, the study, Let it reign: The new water paradigm for global food security​, points the finger at supermarkets in the developed world overflowing with produce from all over the globe.

"Literally, the shortage of food is a distant problem in this context,"​ says the report. "The problem is rather the opposite; (consumers becoming) overweight, and obesity."

Deservedly, the report says, the attention to the causes and consequences of both obesity and hunger has been growing together with the will of the international community to tackle the problem. But behind the question of sufficient and healthy food lies another reality: the way it is produced, distributed and consumed undermines a cornerstone of sustainable development.

The ferocious demand for food and other resources from the north has lead to dramatic changes. The world is rapidly converting nature into agricultural land to meet growing demands, draining rivers of all water to produce food, and polluting water with pesticides and fertiliser.

In addition, the food production process is a heavy user of water. The UK's Environment Agency estimates that the British food industry alone consumes approximately 900 megalitres of water each day, enough to supply almost three-quarters of all customers' needs in London daily.

Huge volumes of water are transformed into vapour during the food production process, while a significant percentage is discharged as wastewater.

A new crucial question therefore begs for an answer; how can food demand and intake be equitable, sound and within the earth's biological production potential.

Here, the report says, it is the consumer who faces fundamental choices: for good and healthy foods, and for food that is produced in a sustainable manner. Factual information on the way food is produced and what societal and environmental costs it brings can help raise consumer awareness.

Choices in the supermarket each day are not only choices for a healthy or unhealthy lifestyle therefore, but also have profound impacts on the lives of poor communities and on their environment far away, according to the report.

"The world needs more food and consumption is moving towards more water-intensive items and less healthy diets,"​ said Jan Lundqvist of Linköping University, one of the report's authors.

"Irrigation can only partly satisfy the thirst for expanded future food production, and agricultural land is shrinking. Global food security in the future requires a new water management approach today."

The report estimates that the demand for food will increase by 50 per cent every generation. Even considering wastage, the new report says that if a high calorie intake becomes the social norm for all of humanity, the increased pressure on natural resources - above all, water - will be dramatic.

Food production is a highly water-consuming activity. In developing countries, the report says, agriculture accounts for 70 to 90 per cent of available freshwater supplies. It takes 550 litres of water to produce enough flour for one loaf of bread - a fraction of the roughly 1500 litres used to produce 100 grams of grain-fed beef.

The result has been a drastic reduction of water in a number of rivers and sinking groundwater levels around the world. There is no water flowing in the Yellow, Colorado and Indus rivers in large parts of the year. Around 1.4 billion people, nearly a quarter of the world's population, live near rivers where all of the available water is committed.

Let It Reign: The New Water Paradigm for Global Food Security​ is available on the websites of SIWI​, IFPRI​, IWMI​ and IUCN​. The report was commissioned by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).

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