Changing Planet

A Plea for the Water in All We Use, Make and Eat

“We’re using tomorrow’s water to meet today’s food demand,” warned Sandra Postel, National Geographic Freshwater Fellow, helping to provoke a meaningful discussion on water as it relates to food at the Aspen Environmental Forum. Agriculture was a central theme as it consumes a disproportionate share of global water resources.

Jon Foley from the University of Minnesota painted a picture of our inefficiency. “One liter of water is needed to irrigate one calorie food, but that changes by factor of 100 for the most inefficient practices.” It is clear that water efficiency improvements for agriculture must play a large role.

One challenge is to gain an accurate understanding of the issue because allocation of water resources is not easily visible. Postel explained the concept of “virtual water” to paint a clearer picture.

Water is a direct and indirect component of everything we use, make and eat. The average American consumes 2,000 gallons of water per day and more than half is incorporated into our diet. Grain represents the trading currency for water in the same way that oil is a trading currency for energy. The reason Egypt imports grain is because they are water stressed.

The first thing a water stressed country will do is to shift their water resources from the agriculture sector to the urban and industrial sector in order to maximize the economic potential of available water. As China and India face water problems, Postel said to expect a major shift in grain trade.

On a similar note, Foley advised not to get distracted by the real problem. Only one bottle of water is needed to produce a bottle of water, whereas hundreds of gallons of water goes into a thimble size cup of cream due to the agricultural origin of the product. Bottled water is not a water problem. It is a plastic problem. It is important to recognize the true nature of the problem.

The session finished with some advice from Postel. Don’t just think about production side of things. Instead frame the question, “How do we provide a nutritious diet on less water?”

Chad Lipton is currently starting a business delivering clean energy services in Cote d’Ivoire. Previously, Chad worked for National Geographic where he managed a grant program to fund entrepreneurs delivering innovative energy solutions to communities facing economic, climate change, environmental and other challenges. In 2013, Chad submitted the winning idea to be the subject matter for National Geographic's challenge competition, called the Terra Watt Prize. He helped develop the prize objective, which is to address the challenges of energy access by facilitating the flow of capital between entrepreneurs and investors and also to identify viable business models. Before National Geographic, Chad worked for Elysian Energy as an energy auditor, carrying out site visits and analysis in the residential energy field. Prior to Elysian Energy, Chad worked in the field of carbon management, where he performed site verification for greenhouse gas emission reduction projects. From 2004-07, Chad worked as an environmental health specialist in Africa carrying out water and sanitation projects in Côte d’Ivoire and Mozambique. Chad has master’s degrees in Environmental Health Science and International Relations from The Johns Hopkins University.
  • Donna Thomas

    This is scary! Doesn’t seem possible that that it would take 100s of gallons of water to produce one thimble of cream!! That’s insane, how is this calculated? If that’s true, there has to be a better way. What really is mind boggling is that there are probably an exponential amount of similar examples all over the world. The problem, too many people don’t look for the most efficient way to do things or they don’t care. I know people who still don’t recycle, i just don’t understand it!!!! Sorry for writing a book, this is a subject that i am passionate about! If everyone on the planet would just do little more to conserve water, energy, and recycle what they can, the results would be dramatic.

  • Chad Lipton

    Cream requires water for raising and grazing cattle, and bottling and processing. The National Geographic website does a good job in illustrating the embedded costs of water:

    This site explains that 55 gallons of water go into production of one cup of milk. Maybe Foley was exaggerating by estimating in the 100s of gallons. On the other hand, I’m not sure if cream is more water intensive than milk. It’s possible.

  • micro jobs

    This short article is simple to adhere to and yet it truly strikes a chord. It tends to make you stop and consider the viewpoints. You have carried out extremely well.

  • Richa

    We’re using tomorrow’s water to meet today’s food demand

  • Madi

    While agriculture poses a larger threat to water than bottled water does I would say that bottled water is still a water issue. Bottled water supports the privatization of water, along with creating a pollution problem, which affects our waterways.

  • Hailey Martin


  • Marianne

    such an old topic. traditional agriculture is wasteful in all manor be it water, soil degradation and environment destabilisation. Their are other forms of growing food including aquaponics that uses a 10% the water traditional farming uses and produces multiple crops, be it fish, crayfish, shrimp, or water protein source and almost any plant crop all organic and beneficial to each other.

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