Meeting The World’s Food, Water And Energy Needs: A Reason For Optimism

How will we feed the 9 billion people that will live on this planet in a few decades? Will we have enough water for all these people to drink? Will there be sufficient water to grow the food we will eat, and to cultivate the consumables we will desire?  Will we have enough energy to power the kind of future that we all want? These are important, even existential questions. Water, food, and energy concerns are real, immediate and interconnected and these are important challenges. At the same time, we have the ability to manage or even solve these challenges.

The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that we will need to increase world food production by 60-70% to feed 9 billion people. Between 2013 and 2015, population increased about 6% in the developing world vs. 2% in higher income countries; the corresponding food needs will not be uniform either. The developing world – where growth and innovation in food production are the slowest and where more than 90% of the population growth will occur – must double its output to keep up.

Much like with food production, water resources will become increasingly scarce in the next few decades. By 2050, about 5 billion people will live in water stressed areas, where demand exceeds supply. Also like food, the effects will be felt the most in the developing world, especially since 70%of the global fresh water supply goes to agriculture. To keep up with population-driven food needs there will need to be an over 19% increase in water consumed just for agriculture. But water issues are not just about quantity. 1.8 billion – one out of every four – people around the globe use drinking water sources that have some levels of fecal contamination.

Modern irrigation techniques have the potential to reduce water use and increase agricultural productivity.

Modern Irrigation
Modern irrigation techniques have the potential to reduce water use and increase agricultural productivity. Photo credit to Wikimedia user Borisshin under a Creative Commons License.

Global energy consumption has been rising for some time is expected to increase by 48% in the next 20 years. If current trends hold, consumers will meet that increased demand mainly via non-renewable energy, including coal, gas, and oil. Recent growth in non-renewable consumption has been particularly noticeable in the developing world, with China – now the leading global consumer of energy – getting most of its energy from non-renewable sources. Some estimates say that the world has about 50 years of oil (the largest of the non-renewables) reserves left. Unless we figure out more efficient ways to slow down that clock or, better yet, increase focus on the cross-cutting potential of renewable sources, the world will be running out of non-renewable energy around the same time as it deals with food and water shortages.

But there is some good news.

We have made significant breakthroughs over time to manage our scarce resources. On-farm innovation is a big business and therefore new and improved seeds, pest controls, fertilizers, automation and mechanization, and other technological advances are being driven primarily by the private sector. Though disproportionately developed and implemented in higher income countries, recent innovations – like mobile apps linking farmers to markets and livestock owners to veterinarians, and fertilizer deep placement – have shown promise in the developing world. There is reason for optimism considering these ‘shinier’ innovations are supplements to significant efforts already underway from the development aid community to improve irrigation and crop management techniques, to increase use of improved seeds, and to reduce post-harvest loss.

 Breakthroughs for water have come in three main areas: access, quality, and conservation. While over 2.5 billion people have gained access to improved drinking water sources since 1990, one in 10 people still drink water that risks contamination. For the individual, constant access to clean and cheap water is still the biggest barrier. But some countries have improved; notably Paraguay, where rural water access rose from 52% in 2000 to 94% today. Beyond health concerns around consumption, a lot of water worry centers around industrial production processes and “virtual water exports”—or goods that require a lot of water to be produced.

This means industry must take the lead on conservation. And they have. Companies like Coca-Cola and Unilever both focus on water in their sustainability plans. Food companies who rely on agriculture in their supply chain, such as Pepsi and Campbell’s Soup, have moved production to less water scarce growing regions. These companies have also invested time and effort in thinking about how to improve public policy around water management. Another area of innovations is reusing waste water. From Mexico to India, public campaigns to treat wastewater to be reused in utilities and agriculture are growing. Delhi plans to grow to its reuse of sewage from 25% to 80% in the next 10 years.

The energy landscape is changing at a rapid rate. Though the top three energy consumers – China, the U.S. and India – still rely on and will rely on non-renewable sources to provide power for their economies for many decades into the future but the renewables are going to be an important part of the energy mix of the future. China recently announced that it plans to invest $361 billion into renewable power generation by 2020, and India forecasts that renewables will account for nearly 60% of its total electrical capacity within 10 years. Ranchers and oilmen in Texas are investing in wind farms. Large non-energy companies like Johnson & Johnson and Cisco Systems are investing in solar energy.

At the end of the day, we should be realistic about the challenges ahead but optimistic about the future, realizing that we must work hard towards realizing that optimistic future. That is why I am very pleased to be participating in the upcoming Earth Optimism conference in D.C. starting on Friday, April 21.

Article Published in Forbes.com on April 13, 2017.

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