14 May 2008


14 May 2008
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

PRESS CONFERENCE on report ‘saving water from field to fork’

Twice as much water as currently used in food production would be needed to meet the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people that suffer from hunger by 2015 if current trends continue, Anders Berntell of the Stockholm International Water Institute told correspondents today.

Mr. Berntell was speaking at a Headquarters press conference to mark the launch of a report on Saving Water from Field to Fork, produced by the Stockholm International Water institute in collaboration with the International Water Management Institute of Sri Lanka, the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and the Stockholm Environment Institute.

He was joined by the authors of the report, David Molden of the International Water Management Institute and Jan Lundqvist, also of the Stockholm International Water Institute, as well as by Pasquale Steduto of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Mr. Berntell said food production and agriculture were, by far, the biggest global users of water and an average of 70 per cent of all the water that was extracted went to agriculture.  In that regard, rain-fed agriculture accounted for a large proportion of the water use.

In trying to determine how much water was needed to meet the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people that suffer from hunger, the authors of the report had realized that the water requirement for food depended on what was eaten.  A vegetarian diet was much less water consuming than a beef-eating diet, for instance.

Household water use, on which people mostly focused, actually only accounted for some 10 per cent of overall water use, while industry accounted for 20 per cent, he continued.  Further, one very easy way of reducing total water use was to reduce overall losses in the food chain from production to consumption, from the field to the fork.

Mr. Molden noted that it took between 500 and 2,000 litres of water to produce 1 kilogramme of wheat and between 5,000 and 20,000 litres to produce 1 kilogramme of beef.  Applying those figures to the human diet meant that, on average, each person used about 3,000 litres of water daily to meet dietary requirements.

In order to get that much water, society had developed water resources in river basins, he went on.  However, water was now a constraint to food production in many river basins, and about 2.1 billion people now lived in river basins that were closed and where there was no more water to grow food.  Thus, the only option was to grow more food with less water.  At the same time, about 1.6 billion people lived in river basins in which the water was still there, but where access was difficult, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Looking to the future, it was likely that the amount of grain that was now being produced would have to be doubled, he said.  If there was no change in current practice for food production and consumption, it was likely that twice as much water as used today would be needed by 2015 to produce the required food.  Thus, the challenge was to reduce the amount of water used.

Mr. Steduto stated that all efforts at water and food production were shaped by the impact of climate change.  The uncertainty about rainfall because of climate change made the capacity to produce volatile.  Thus, there was a need to revisit the way things were handled.

He added that the increasing food prices as a result of rising oil and energy prices and the new focus on biofuels, which had diverted the use of land from food production to production of bioenergy, were also important factors, as they had introduced a new component into the issue of food.  The World Bank estimated that, just because of the food price increases, some 100 million people had already fallen back into poverty.

Mr. Lundqvist pointed out that, although farmers were often blamed for being wasteful in water use, there was also the need to look at the consumption side.  where, through food habits, there was a tendency for people to throw away a large part of the food bought.  The new report looked at different types of waste in the food chain and estimated significant waste, with variations depending on what part of the world was being studied.

In the hot climate zones, where there was high humidity and poor storage and transport facilities, a huge loss existed in the first part of the food chain, reaching about 25 to 50 per cent of the food that was available in the field, he continued.  That meant a huge loss for farmers’ incomes.  In the other parts of the world, however, the major loss or waste was on the consumption side, where about 25 per cent or higher of food was thrown away by households or consuming units.

In addition to that waste, there was the problem of overeating, which resulted in health problems and in people being overweight, he noted.

In response to a question, Mr. Lundqvist noted that very few people knew about the water consumption related to the food they ate.  In that regard, the present food crisis provided an auspicious moment for a well-designed awareness-raising campaign to convey that message.  It did not make sense for a family to buy food and then throw away 25 per cent of it.  Also, to address the food and water challenge, it was necessary to look not only at increasing production, but also at how to ensure that what was produced in the field reached the intended consumers.

In response to another question, Mr. Steduto said that genetic engineering could be one of the ways to address the need for increased food production, through the development of seeds that required less water to grow.  However, certain interventions could be better suited to certain environments.  Further, a focus on developing plants that were more resistant to disease and pest might be more valuable than looking for drought resistant qualities, since a lot of work still remained to be done on the latter, and the time frame for a breakthrough did not appear to be in the short term.

* *** *

For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.