The Coming Famine: eating ethically, living sustainably…

Julian Cribb makes an impassioned – and I think eye-openingly, convincing – argument for greater awareness around our consumption of food. In his book, The Coming Famine, he describes the impact mankind’s food production and consumption (and waste) is having on the planet – as well as the impact these effects will in turn have on our own ability to sustain life and social order. What he has to say about water is particularly important reading (especially with the NZ government threatening to sell off assets in NZ) because there is so little awareness of how we use water – and how our use of water impacts on the environment.

Our water footprint

Most people are unaware of how much water goes into producing the food on their plates – yet this is likely to be a critical factor on which we will all base our food choices in the years ahead, as water becomes scarcer and more costly. Food uses so much water because the plants on which all our foods are based – including livestock products – take up and release a great deal of water as part of their internal functioning, just as we breathe air in and out. This process is known as transpiration. The water embodied in our food is referred to as ‘virtual water.’” (p.32)

“…under Australian conditions, the irrigation scientist Wayne Meyer calculates that [-p.33] * producing 1 kilogram of oven dry wheat grain takes 715-50 liters of water…

* 1 kg beef takes 50,000-100,000 liters…

* 1kg clean wool takes 170,000 liters….

So that smart wool suit you bought took at least 170 tonnes (45,200 U.S. gallons) of water to grow the grass that fed the sheep that grew the wool that you wear.
From this it can be seen that the average well-off person easily manages to use from two to three tonnes …of water, in the form of food or fiber, every day – an Olympic sized swimming pool of water every two and a half years. Also, certain diets, especially those rich in meat, dairy, or oils, use massively more water than diets based [-p.34] mainly on vegetables or grains. Food and fiber thus account for seven times the amount of water we use to drink, wash, clean our homes, flush toilets, or water parks, gardens, and sports fields. This is arguably our biggest personal impact on the planet.” (pp.32-34)

Superficially, the world has an abundance of freshwater – but it isn’t always located where the people are or where the food is grown, a lot of it is frozen, it isn’t always easy or cheap to extract, and often it is too polluted to use. We have already tapped most of the freshwater that is accessible and economic, and tapping more distant, dirty, or difficult supplies of water, like oil, is a great deal more costly. At the same time, we manage, conserve, and price water very badly.” (p.34)

“Our use of water is known as our water footprint.” (p.34)

Today our freshwater supply is being stretched to the limit. The main reasons include the following.
Food demand growth. Since 1950 the area of irrigated land has doubled and withdrawals of water have tripled due to our growing population and even stronger demand for high-protein food….
City growth. Worldwide, 3.5 billion people now live in cities. By 2050, it is quite likely that cities will have 7 billion inhabitants. Current [-p.35] urban water demand of 1,200 cubic kilometers… thus could balloon to around 2,500 cubic kilometers… or even more. As cities are usually richer than farmers, they can afford to buy water once used to grow food and divert it to urban uses, which tends to reduce local food production and cause food prices to rise.
Economic growth. As populations develop economically, their per capita consumption of meat, dairy, sugar, and oils rises, and these foodstuffs require far more water to produce than vegetables and grains do.  The more successful we are at overcoming poverty and building our economies, the heavier the demands we place on water resources.
Overextraction. Mechanical pumps powered by fossil fuels allow the extraction of surface and underground water in immense volumes, which often exceed natural rates of recharge. …Pumping of groundwater also helps to empty rivers, lakes, and wetlands and kills landscapes when water tables sink out of reach of tree roots. In many countries, governments encourage this destruction and waste by providing cheap hydroelectricity or by underpricing water.
Ignorance. Most communities and many water authorities do not in fact know the true extent of their water resource or the rate at which it is replenished. This makes every decision to use it a gamble – and one that often goes wrong, resulting in a dying river, lake, aquifier, basin, or even sea.
Confusion. Many people, including governments, seem unaware that surface water in rivers and lakes and groundwater drawn from wells and aquifiers are often interconnected and that removing one reduces the supply of the other. …more water may be withdrawn than the total system receives in recharge.
Poor management. Most of the world’s water is managed badly or not at all. There are fierce disagreements in many communities over [-p.37] water rights and competing uses. Authorities often sell (or permit the removal of) more water than enters the river naturally from rainfall or recharge, causing river basins to dry up.
Poor farming practices. …
Poor infrastructure. …
Desertification. …
Reforestation. …
Salt and acidity. …
Natural toxins. …
Development focus. … [-p.38]
Climate change. Key regions of the world are starting to dry out, in particular the grain bowls, while others may be getting wetter. Irrigation regions that rely on glacial or snow melt are particularly at risk. Increasing pressure on governments to tackle carbon emissions to combat climate change has led to reduced priority for many water-management improvements.
‘Fifty years ago the world had fewer than half as many people as it has today. They were not as wealthy. They consumed fewer calories, ate less meat, and thus required less water to produce their food. The pressure they inflicted on the environment was lower. They took from our rivers a third of the water that we take now,’ explains IWMI, the world’s leading water research center.” (pp.35-38)

Water is said to provide ‘ecosystem services,’ by which the experts mean keeping landscapes functioning so they can provide us with food, clothing, shelter, and clean water to drink as well as maintaining the landscapes, air, biota, and natural systems on which our survival ultimately depends. Healthy landscapes in turn provide fertile soil, soak up more carbon from the atmosphere, cleanse water and maintain the diversity of life. Damages landscapes spell the loss of these benefits.” (p.43)

“Actions to solve the world’s water crisis may be divided into three broad areas: awareness, incentives (or penalties), and technical advances.” (p.43)

What can I do about it?

At the end of each chapter in this book, Cribb elaborates on ways the individual can make a difference. At the end of his discussion about water, Cribb writes:

“Here are some practical suggestions for changes we can make in our own lives. [-p.47]
1. Practice water saving in our choice of food, drinks, and other purchases, which will send a message to farmers and manufacturers that we value products that save water.
2. Support realistic pricing of water, according to its true value.
3. Support moves for goods to be labeled and priced according to their virtual water content.
4. Support the recycling of urban wastewater and stormwater in order to reduce the pressure of urban demand on rural water supplies.
5. Support the separation of urban waste streams into recyclable/nonrecyclable and the replacement of the flushing toilet with composting or other systems.
6. Save water in our homes, gardens, and workplaces.
7. Avoid all waste of food.
8. Eat more vegetables and less meat, dairy, and oils: save the planet and avoid heart disease.
9. Grow more of our own food and support local food production.
10. Teach our children to prize water as much as freedom.” (pp.46-47)

Ref: Julian Cribb (c2010) The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. CSIRO Publishing: Collingwood, Vic., Australia.

NOTE that Plant and Food Research here in NZ have water as one of their key research areas…


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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