In the past several years, volatile food prices, extreme weather events, and new climate change projections have raised a serious and relevant question: Will we be able to produce enough food sustainably to feed the world's people in the 21st century?
The effort to produce enough food will be increasingly challenged by a number of factors, including water and energy scarcity. But you wouldn't know this from looking at countries' food, water, and energy policies, which are often developed and managed independently, with no thought given to how they do, or should, interact.
Much of the world's food is produced through methods that make profligate use of resources and have high economic, ecological, and social costs. Food policies often rely on free or subsidized water and energy, with the result that farmers use more of these resources than they really need, worsening scarcity. If current water management practices continue, 49 percent of global grain production will be at risk from severe water stress in 2050. Although agriculture accounts for 80 percent of global water consumption, current water strategies focus on water use for households and industries without assessing consequences for agriculture. Future increases in urbanization and industrialization will also reduce water quality, further tightening the supply of water available for food production. Energy policies increasingly rely on first-generation biofuels, such as maize-based ethanol (for example, 35 percent of the US maize crop is currently used for ethanol production) and soy-based diesel, which compete with food production. Most of these policies degrade the environment. And food continues to remain out of reach of the poor.
It gets worse. Recent studies have found that rising greenhouse gas emissions could push up average temperatures by much more than 2 degrees Celsius-the increase generally considered "manageable"-by 2050. This rise in temperature, and the associated shifts in climate and increases in extreme weather, will put intense pressure on the land and water that we depend on to feed the world. We must break down the silos in which current thinking takes place and focus on the synergies that more interdisciplinary thinking-a nexus view-could set free.
Fortunately, recent events have led many countries to take a closer look at their agriculture and food security strategies. Here is our chance to coordinate food security strategies with water and energy plans. To do so, we will need to raise awareness of the links among water, energy, and food. We will need to assess the implications of new food security strategies for energy and water. And we will need to examine the implications of water and energy strategies, particularly biofuel strategies, for food security.
On the policy side, we must ensure that poor farmers have secure tenure rights to land and water so they have both rights to and responsibility for these resources. On the technology side, we should do more to develop and disseminate affordable technologies to help poor farmers to use resources efficiently. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, integrated soil fertility management can help farmers cope with degraded soils. By combining fertilizers with manure or compost, farmers can replenish nutrients in depleted soils, increase the soil's capacity to hold water, boost crop production, sequester carbon, and reduce energy use. In much of the rest of the world, fertilizer production gobbles up large amounts of energy, but farmers can use fertilizers more efficiently by, for example, adopting certain plant varieties or using slow-release fertilizers. These steps can increase the amount of food produced per unit of energy and reduce water pollution from fertilizer runoff. Careful attention to the crops most suited to a region's soil and water supplies will be especially important. Low-tech, low-cost methods of recycling water, such as reed-bed water recycling, offer big returns for minimal investments. Water storage reservoirs designed to capture the heavy rainfall that is likely to result from climate change in certain places can double as hydropower facilities.
These are just a few of the opportunities to maximize synergies and minimize trade-offs among food, water, and energy, but researchers must intensify the search for others. And solutions like these are not likely to be adopted around the world without policy changes that account for the links among food, water, and energy. Those policy changes will have to take place in both industrialized and developing countries. The Bonn Nexus Conference, held last week, was a platform to discuss these important topics and help us move forward. It is high time to develop food, water, and energy strategies that will secure the world's food supply instead of putting it at risk.
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