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Talking about the weather

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IT may seem odd to be worrying about water shortages when the UK has just experienced its wettest summer in 100 years. However, other parts of the world, including the major crop-growing areas of the American Midwest and Eastern Europe, have had a very different experience and the effects of drought on crop production are expected to push up world food prices in the year to come. In the UK crops have been affected because it has been too wet while, elsewhere, they have been affected because it is too dry. It can be hard to get people interested in a problem until it affects them directly but, in an increasingly urbanised world where, in the more prosperous countries at least, most people are many steps removed from the nitty-gritty of farming, this year's experiences should help highlight just how dependent food production is on the weather and focus attention on the need to ensure sustainable food production for the future. Despite all the rain that fell on the UK this summer, they also serve to emphasise an underlying message of World Water Week – an international meeting held in Stockholm last month – namely, that water is a precious resource that needs to be managed wisely. The theme for the week was Water and Food Security, which certainly seems topical.

Some of the issues to be discussed at the meeting were highlighted in a report published just beforehand by the Stockholm Water Research Institute. The report, called ‘Feeding a thirsty world’,1 draws attention to a prediction by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that, to feed the 9 billion people that are expected to be on the planet by 2050, world food production will have to be increased by 70 per cent. This, it points out, will place additional pressure on water sources, which are also needed for other purposes, such as energy generation. It notes that meeting this challenge will involve both increasing efficiency of production and reducing waste throughout the food chain; as things stand, 30 to 50 per cent of food is lost and wasted from harvest to consumption.

There are a number of thought-provoking observations in the report. Among them is that ‘There will not be enough water available on current croplands to produce food for the expected population in 2050 if we follow current trends and changes towards diets common in Western nations (3000 kcal produced per capita, including 20 per cent of calories produced coming from animal proteins). There will, however, be just enough water, if the proportion of animal-based foods is limited to 5 per cent of total calories and considerable regional water deficits can be met by a well-organised and reliable system of food trade.’ It also includes the depressing observation that, while food trade is often seen as an opportunity to transfer a surplus to areas of shortages, the current rush for land and water outside national territories could change this, with the result that ‘food will be exported silently away from people and from areas where food security is hard to accomplish’.

As part of its own contribution to World Water Week, the FAO put forward a new framework for water management in agriculture,2 which aims to transform the way water is used throughout the food chain. Agriculture, the FAO points out, accounts for 70 per cent of global freshwater use so, while clearly part of the problem, it also holds the key to sustainable water use in the future. Meanwhile, reflecting concern that the recent sharp increase in prices in world food markets may be about to lead to a repeat of the 2007/08 world food crisis, the FAO, the International Fund for Agriculture Development and the World Food Programme this week issued a joint statement calling on the international community to take action both to tackle the immediate problem and address the underlying issues.

Of the various messages from World Water Week, the exhortation about the need to eat less meat probably received the most press coverage, as was the case when Lord Stern, author of an influential report on climate change in 2006, made a similar recommendation a few years ago. Nevertheless, it is hard to envisage a future in which livestock production does not play an important part, whether because people like eating meat, because in some places they represent the most efficient if not the only way of producing food, or because many people depend on livestock for their survival.

Availability of water is just one of a number of factors affecting future security and, in 2009, Britain's chief scientific adviser, Sir John Beddington, warned of a ‘perfect storm’ in which, against a background of climate change, a growing world population faced food, water and energy shortages, potentially leading to cross border conflicts and social unrest. There remains a need to increase the efficiency of livestock production while reducing its environmental impact and this is an area in which the veterinary profession must be involved.

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