Water-food link suggests more holistic farming approach

Because food production requires 70 to 90 percent of available water resources in some areas, a new “agroecosystem” approach to farming may be needed.

Two new reports presented at World Water Week in Stockholm this week (August 21-27, 2011) illustrate the vital connection between the availability of fresh water and food production. These reports outline a new approach to farming advocated by some experts. It is a more holistic “landscape” approach to farming, which they’re calling an agroecosystem approach.

The new approach to farming takes into account that food production already requires 70 to 90 percent of withdrawals from available water resources in some areas, according to these experts. Moreover – in many of the world’s richest agricultural regions, including the plains of northern China, India’s Punjab and the Western United States – water limits are close to being “reached or breached,” they say.

Image Credit: Annika Börje

From the press release:

The authors warn … that the world must act quickly if the goal is to save the Earth’s main breadbasket areas – where resources are so depleted the situation threatens to decimate global supplies of fresh water and cripple agricultural systems worldwide.

The first new report linking fresh water and food issues was a joint study by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), two organizations participating in the 2011 Stockholm World Water Week meeting. It’s called An Ecosystem Services Approach to Water and Food Security. On August 21, ISMI and UNEP released a joint statement, saying “a radical transformation” in the way farming and natural systems interact could “simultaneously boost food production and protect the environment.” The press release was worded in a positive way, but it sounded to me as if they were saying that a radical transformation is needed to create sustainable farming practices and that we neglect that transformation only at the peril of the billion-plus Earth inhabitants who already live day to day without knowing where their next meal will come from.

This new analysis from the IWMI and UNEP outlines what they called an “urgent need” to rethink current strategies for intensifying agriculture, given that growing crops use so much of a region’s fresh water. Meanwhile, according to this report, 1.6 billion people already live under conditions of water scarcity. The report suggests that number could soon grow to two billion, and the press release states:

The current situation in the Horn of Africa is a timely reminder of just how vulnerable to famine some regions are.

Eline Boelee of IWMI was lead scientific editor of the report. She called out a need to incorporate water and food concerns into a new landscape – or agroecosystem – approach:

Agriculture is both a major cause and victim of ecosystem degradation. And it is not clear whether we can continue to increase yields with the present practices. Sustainable intensification of agriculture is a priority for future food security, but we need to take a more holistic “landscape” approach.

Image Credit: Annika Börje

The second new report linking fresh water and food issues came from IWMI, too, and it also suggests the need for an agroecosystem approach. It’s called Wetlands, Agriculture and Poverty Reduction, and it warns against seeking to protect wetlands by simply excluding agriculture. It argues that policies focused simply on wetland preservation ignore the potential of “wetland agriculture” to increase food production and contribute to reducing poverty. Matthew McCartney of IWMI, who co-authored the report, said:

Blanket prohibitions against cultivation do not always reduce ecosystem destruction and can make things worse. For example, the grassy “dambo” wetlands of sub-Saharan Africa often provide vital farmland to the rural poor. Banning farming in these areas, however, has exacerbated rather than reduced ecosystem destruction. It has prompted deforestation upstream and led to a shift from farming to grazing in the wetlands themselves so that, overall, there has been a much greater impact on these natural systems. What is needed is a balance: appropriate farming practices that support sustainable food production and protect ecosystems.

The two reports focus on radically reorienting practices and policies so that farming occurs in agroecosystems that exist as part of the broader landscape. David Molden, Deputy Director General for Research at IWMI, said:

We are seeing a growing trend of alliances between traditionally conservationist groups and those concerned with agriculture … The various political, research and community alliances now emerging are challenging the notion that we have to choose between food security and ecosystem health by making it clear that you can’t have one without the other.

Bottom line: Two new reports released at World Water Week in Stockholm this week (August 21-27, 2011) suggest a radical new “holistic” approach to farming is needed that acknowledges the vital link between food production and fresh water. The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) conducted the studies and made the recommendation. Overall, the authors say it’s time for decision-makers at the international, national and local level to embrace an agroecosystem approach to food production, in which appropriate farming practices both support sustainable food production and protect ecosystems.

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