​Emerging priorities in the food security and agriculture sectors

In an interview, Huw Pohlner from Aither discussed the importance of a global water management dialogue in considering the emerging priorities of the food security and agricultural sectors. In the Asia Pacific, up to 85% of the water supply is used for food production. While water management has been focused on breaking down the silos, the water sector is still not well aligned with the food security agenda. Huw pointed out that often, only a water supply-side perspective is considered when speaking about food security, despite water quality also being an important aspect.

While food, water, and agriculture are intimately linked, they do not always share the same global and local agendas. This means that the water sector, in particular, is not well-informed of the global agriculture-food agenda, despite water playing a significant role in ensuring food security.

It is important for people within the water sector to understand the key emerging priorities in the food security and agriculture sectors and vice versa. The synergies between the sectors represent a huge opportunity in terms of developing and implementing sustainable practices.

“I think that agriculture and energy are key as the dominant users of water in most countries, particularly agriculture in most developing countries. There has to be a consistent constant dialogue between agricultural policymakers and users of water and those that are deciding how water is allocated and managed. I think without that conversation, it’s going to be very difficult to see sustainable solutions developed.” Huw Pohlner, Aither

Priorities emerging from the food security community

“In China, water resources per hectare of cultivated land are just two-thirds of the world average level, while water resources are also geographically imbalanced, with North China having 60 per cent of cultivated land but only 20 per cent of water resources,” according to a report into agricultural perspectives in the Asia-Pacific.

“Underground water has been heavily relied on, which has resulted in a severe decline in water levels while the efficiency of irrigation is also low. Industrialisation and over-fertilisation have also heavily polluted water sources. … Likewise in India, the water table has been depleted due to excess consumption for food production. The agricultural sector, which currently accounts for 80 per cent of India’s water consumption by way of irrigation, is highly inefficient in its water usage pattern, and yet 65 per cent of cultivable land has no irrigation facilities. According to IFC estimates, India is likely to have a 50 per cent water deficit by the year 2030.” Ping Chew and Marc Soccio, RaboResearch

To ensure food security, stakeholders must meet the demand for food without sacrificing water resources for the future, potentially by improving efficiency in production and optimizing trade. Safety nets, both socially and food-based, need to be put in place for vulnerable populations. The immediate problem of food security must be addressed through providing food for those who do not have it and at the same time long term risk management needs to be underway as well, especially given the link between food, water, and health.

Beyond having enough water to grow, process, and maintain food supplies, countries which rely on agriculture as part of their economy need to be concerned with water quality and food quality, as it can directly impact their financial wellbeing.

“The link between food quality and human health in China has gone from being not much of an issue at all 15 years ago to now… they have real concerns around the existence of heavy metals in food and, for example, what’s in that fish,” said Pohlner. “The people’s responses to what they might perceive as risks around human health in relation to food, water and air are very, very rapid and have massive consequences for the producers of food, for government actors, and for general society in these countries.”

Background reading

The FAO has two reports which look at land and water issues through the lens of food security, providing a good starting point for looking at the issues around water through the food security perspective. Both reports provide recommendations at the policy level and can be a good starting point for exploring the alignment of the food and water agendas.

The state of the world’s land and water resources for food and agriculture (SOLAW) (2011)
This flagship report analyses a variety of options for overcoming constraints and improving resource management in areas of heightened risk. In each location, a mix of changes in institutional and policy measures will have to be combined with greater access to technologies for better management of land and water resources.

Towards a water and food secure future; critical perspectives for policy-makers (2015)
This paper aims to provide policy-makers with a helpful overview of the technical and economic aspects of water use in agriculture, with particular emphasis on crop and livestock production. Through 2050, in many countries, agriculture will remain an important determinant of economic growth, poverty reduction, and food security, even as, over time, the proportion of agricultural revenue in national gross income declines.

The Food, Energy, Environment, and Water Network, of which Huw is a member, also provides news and resources for those looking to explore further this point of intersection. It is described in an interview with Quentin Grafton, director of the FE2W network.

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