By now, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the world is facing a global water crisis. What is less apparent is how this crisis is intimately tied food—how we source, produce, and consume what we eat. In the face of drastic warnings of reduced freshwater around the world in coming decades (UNESCO has explicitly warned that climate change will alter the availability of water and threaten water security), it is important to identify what, exactly, a lack of freshwater means. What are the most urgent risks, and where will it take its highest toll? What are our best areas for innovation?
Already, a quarter of the world currently suffers from issues related to water scarcity. Out of that, a staggering 844 million people lack even a basic, reliable freshwater source. Looking ahead, researchers predict that with a 2 degree increase in global warming, we can expect further reductions in water availability, compounded by increased demand. Climate change will (and already does) impact water availability in several ways—the most obvious of which comes from increased temperatures, which speed the evaporation of water and lead to worsening droughts. Here in the United States, we are suffering from what has been called a historic multi-state and multi-year drought.
Higher temperatures also lead to glacial melting, which are important sources of freshwater, and can not be recovered once lost. Add to that worsening natural disasters, which can affect the infrastructure used to deliver freshwater to communities and can contaminate freshwater supplies.
Perhaps more importantly, there is the issue of a growing population—the IPCC’s latest climate report reminds us that the expanding global population may actually have a greater effect on water resource availability than drought, and will critically exacerbate climate change’s impact. That is, we stand to experience an increased demand for water and, simultaneously, a reduced supply.
So what is the impact on human populations? Water scarcity is most often thought of in terms of our ability to access to fresh drinking water. We picture taps run dry, and imposed water “rations” on households. But the real threat of water scarcity will be its impact on our food system. The water we require for drinking is a fraction—only about 0.01%—of the water we use to grow and produce the food that we eat. At least 70% of our global freshwater usage goes to agriculture. That number is already three times what we used just 50 years ago, and demand will continue to rise as we anticipate a population of 9 billion people by 2050.
How is this figure so high? One of the greatest uses of water for food, per calorie, is in the production of meat. It requires eight times as much water to produce animal calories than to produce plant-based foods—an issue that is exacerbated by the increasing appetite for meat-based proteins in countries with rising standards of living. As countries like India and China add more meat into their diets, and their populations grow, so does their demand for water. This month’s IPCC report predicts with “high confidence” that livestock will be adversely affected by decreasing freshwater availability.
Plant-based staple crops certainly don’t escape the threat either. A recent study estimates that on the upper end, vegetable and legume production could fall as much as 31% by 2100, and previous studies have predicted a substantial impact on starchy crop staples like corn. North and East Africa and Southwest Asia will likely face the most troublesome water scarcity, with reports putting them at risk to lose their “present capacity to produce a balanced diet for their inhabitants,” with both plant-based and animal-based food sources taken into consideration.
How have we kept pace with increasing water demands for agriculture and livestock expansion so far? Innovations in freshwater management and irrigation have, until now, been able to match our growing agriculture production. One of the biggest breakthroughs has been the miracle of modern drip irrigation. Developed in the 1950s, this technology increased efficiencies in how farmers apply water to crops. In addition, innovations in groundwater-irrigated agriculture and higher-yielding crop varieties helped us produce more with available water. While these advancements have been expanded globally in recent decades, irrigation on farms has still been blamed for the majority of the world’s wasteful water usage. There is much room to expand and increase water efficiencies in agriculture. Yet, movement on water innovation remains small—The New York Times recently cited Silicon Valley’s absence from the water crisis, and TechCrunch has pointed out that only a few hundred million dollars of investment annually go to water companies—“about 1 percent of angel and venture capital.”
mOasis, is notable, then, as a startup focusing on the issue of wasteful water usage on farms. Their technology aims to decrease the water required for irrigation through the application of a soil additive that can hold excess water near the root of a plant, releasing it as the soil dries out.
In addition to being more careful about the water we use, we’ll also have to find more of it. Canadian start-up Livestock Water Recycling has pioneered livestock waste treatment in order to produce clean, reusable water for farms. Several other start-ups on the horizon share similar focus on systems to recycle and reuse water for breweries, farms, and food manufacturers.
On a global scale, perhaps the most drastic new sources of water will come from desalination plants, which turn salty ocean water into freshwater. Although long-considered too costly to put into practical use, desalination is now becoming a real and viable solution to water scarcity. Israel stands out from its water-parched neighbors for its pioneering use of desalination plants—55% of the country’s water comes from coastal desalination facilities, and it actually now has a surplus of water. This technology is currently spreading to other arid regions, including California, where officials just this year approved over $30 million dollars in grants to desalination projects.
We also must consider that some innovations won’t be in increasing the amount of available water itself, but in finding ways that our farming simply requires less water to begin with. PlantArcBio is a Tel Aviv-based start-up with a fairly radical approach to developing drought-tolerant new crop varieties. Instead of finding a specific gene for drought-tolerance, and then introducing it to a plant, the team at PlantArcBio tests huge swaths of genetic material on plants—literally millions of genes. Their researchers source plants and organisms from hostile environments in the desert and Israel’s Dead Sea, and then transfer (or at least attempt to transfer) all of the genes into test plants, and see what works. “If the goal is to produce a drought-tolerant plant, why do we need to know what will work ahead of time? Why not try everything?” asks PlantArcBio founder Dror Shalitin. “We’ve already tested more than 1 million genes in plants. That’s a number that no one in the industry thought could be done.” Eventually, they plan to go back and pinpoint which of the genes did actually make it into the genome of the plant, and attempt to replicate the results in crops like corn.
While complex, the water scarcity issues we face will ultimately be driven by innovation in and our efficient use of water in the food system. Focus will be placed not only how how we source freshwater, but how we can better manage and recycle it, and how we may ultimately do more with less. In light of the current and coming scarcities, we can at least agree that maintaining and expanding freshwater availability deserves more attention from investors, entrepreneurs, and policymakers.