May 26, 2013 | 03:08 PM (BD Time)
26 May, 2013 Sunday
Watch `water label' before you eat!
Sudhirendar Sharma :
Would you stop eating meat if you were told that it takes 10,000 litres of water under industrial conditions to produce a kilo of it? Even a kilo of
locally produced meat would mean anywhere between 5000 - 7000 litres of
water before it reaches the dining table. With one in every three persons
suffering from water scarcity across the world, can such food habits be justified?
Each food product comes with a water quotient. A kilo of grain requires just 500- 4,000 litres, which may seem high if the grain is produced in arid region. In effect, a calorie of food demands a litre of water to produce, according to UN estimates. Several dry regions in the world may find it difficult to produce food-calories at this level of water consumption.
Anders Berntell, head of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), seems to have a prescription to meet this challenge. "Some kind of labeling of food products when it comes to their water requirements could be a first
step," he said. "Then people could see for themselves." Berntell's radical proposal may curb consumption of water-intensive food products.
The challenge is to sustain production of food required for an estimated 3 billion extra people by 2050. According to a recent UN report, conquering hunger at the present level of consumption would mean an 80 per cent increase in water use for agriculture on rain-fed and irrigated lands.
Curiously, fresh water to meet the increasing irrigation demand literally doesn't exist.
Water use efficiency in agriculture has been in vogue for decades, however, without much having been achieved on the ground. Irrigation absorbs about 74 per cent of all water used by people, whereas industrial use is worth 18 per cent and household consumption a mere 8 per cent. To meet growing demand for food, irrigation water needs will double in the years ahead.
Given poor record of irrigation sector in achieving efficiency, Berntell's proposal to encourage consumers to review their diets holds water. If consumers were to demand low-water consuming diet, inefficient irrigation will come under the scanner. With labels "if there is a choice between red meat or a fish -- which requires almost no water because it lives in the water anyway -- then one could make a more enlightened choice," argues Berntell.
Although no country is planning water labeling of food at present, it may have serious implications on food production and trade in future. However, water labeling can help consumers increase their stakes in water management
albeit indirectly. Australia would then not be able to export meat at the cost of vegetables and cereals for its own domestic consumption.
By making informed choices about their diets, consumers will increase their chances of influencing policies too. Many countries including India are
shifting to produce biofuels -- from jatropha, corn or wood -- as a less polluting alternative to fossil fuels. People have little control over such
policies even though experts argue that growing biofuels and food will put additional stress on water.
Such policies may get questioned once water labeling comes into force. For each change in cropping pattern, water quotient would need to be spelled out This will eventually bring about public awareness on the subject, enforcing rational use of water across sectors. Although its wider implications have yet to be examined, a new form of citizen's water governance may be on the
However, what might seem promising in theory is bound to face implementation hurdles as capital-intensive irrigation lobby plays hands-in-gloves with powers that be. Even at the global level, where infrastructure development
is the guiding mantra for water resources development for fighting scarcities, such proposals will run into rough weather.
`We are running against time,' warns Frank Rijsberman, Director General of the International Water Management Institute. Over 1.5 billion of the world s 6.1 billion population live in areas where water is scarce -- such as North Africa and North-West India -- and another billion in regions where people lack infrastructure to exploit water from aquifers and rivers.
Given the challenge of meeting the emerging crises, Berntell's proposal for water label would need to be given a `price tag' as well. A higher price tag for food with a higher water label would be a perfect disincentive for its producer. Once basic food needs are met, farmers can use the balance water to grow more remunerative crops for exports. Afterall, growing flowers instead of maize gives more value per drop.
(Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is a water expert at the Ecological Foundation, New
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