Valuing the true cost of food is key to our water future
There are many elements to tackling the way the world ensures a future water supply. Water as a commodity, the regulation of groundwater and drought-resistant crops are just some of the topics in our discussion with Melissa Ho, Senior Vice President for Water and Food at WWF-US. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 32-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more.
What’s your view on the UN Food Systems Summit: did it create a catalyst for real improvement in the sustainability of the food system?
The summit and its takeaways drive ambition in other platforms, like the Convention on Biological Diversity, where governments will make commitments on nature and biodiversity. The momentum was about elevating the importance of food systems in the broader global agenda on climate and nature. There’s been an elevation and understanding of land use change, deforestation, conversion and food waste and loss.
Turning to water, the western United States has been experiencing severe droughts. What are some of the causes and effects?
We’re tracking two major reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, and their status shows us the state of all western US water. The reservoirs are around 35% of their capacity right now, which is the lowest they have ever been. This is the result of not just a drought but a ‘mega drought’. There’s so much at stake: agriculture is hugely dependant on these reservoirs, and cities too.
Part of the response has been more marketization and commodification of water. Is water pricing a strategy for the future?
Water markets are very controversial and very nascent. To go back a step, the crisis is largely driven by climate change but another dynamic is the importance of groundwater, especially (but not only) in California, where water markets are taking off. Until recently, groundwater was not highly regulated and in droughts there’s chronic overdraft leading to degradation, salt water intrusion and land subsidence.
In California, in 2014 regulation mandated that local groundwater users must bring their basins back into balance by the 2040s. Water markets are just one piece of a mechanism to help manage this groundwater. There’s lots of other mechanisms too.
There’s a need to have pricing and for the true cost of water to be evaluated. For many, the markets are a way to bear that out. The other pieces of the puzzle are governance, equity and inclusion. It’s important to understand the impact and the design of these systems to ensure the basic human right of having access to water for households and livelihoods is maintained.
Are there specific things farmers in the western US or Europe should be doing to help conserve water?
Wetlands restoration is a key one for land management. Wetlands around the world have been converted and it’s a neat example of nature-based infrastructures. On farm, practicing regenerative agriculture, which is important for water management, soil health, soil infrastructure, and soil and nutrient management. We need to also think about water quality and understand the issues around runoff and degradation of water systems from agriculture.
Will we see new crop strains specifically bred to be drought-resistant on farms in the coming decade?
I don’t think genetically engineered, drought-tolerant corn or wheat or rice are a silver bullet. Water is a critical input – you can’t avoid needing water at all. We also need to look at our consumption, our management, and our choices in a much broader way.
Would it be better for people to eat less meat which causes less water abstraction?
I think we oversimplify the issues and the context-based nature of the environmental footprint of food. Moderation and consideration of consumption really matter. It’s not fair to demonize one commodity or another. In the Great Plains in the US, the land is suitable for grazing but not suitable for plant production. Beef is a quality nutrition product and it’s not accurate to say it has no place in the food chain. There are a lot of issues with speciality horticultural crops, especially coming out of France and South America. In the Eco Valley in Peru, there’s overextraction of groundwater for a huge rise in horticultural crops, especially asparagus but also onions, tomatoes and other things.
What would be one policy idea or practical suggestion to create a more sustainable food system?
I wish we would value food for its true cost, looking at all the externalities and impacts that our food system is having on human health. Then allocate our public resources to drive a food system towards better shared values on the outcomes. The UN reported that 87% of government support that goes to agricultural producers is either distorting or causing more damage to health and environment.
If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 32-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.
About Melissa Ho
As Senior Vice President for Freshwater and Food at WWF-US, Melissa D. Ho drives landscape and transformational initiatives that increase the sustainability of agricultural systems and the conservation of water for the environment and ecosystems. WWF is a Strategic Partner of the Forum for the Future of Agriculture.