What if you could see how much water it takes to fill the supermarket shelves with food? About 4.2 litres (1.1 gallons) for every almond; over 52 litres for a single orange; more than 18.5 litres for a walnut — the numbers get even more mind-boggling if you think about how much water it must take to make products like almond milk and orange juice. All told, the Ohio University Russ College of Engineering and Technology reports that 70% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals go to agriculture. In countries where the economy is growing quickly, that number jumps to 90%.

The impact of this is shocking, especially when food waste is factored in. Clean water isn’t exactly plentiful. According to the UN, water scarcity affects four out of ten people worldwide. There’s an invisible tug-of-war at play. On one hand, the Russ College of Engineering and Technology notes that agriculture will need 19% more water for an increasing global population that will supposedly need 60% more food by 2050. On the other, the UN estimates each person needs up to 49 litres of water per day for hydration, sanitation and cooking. If agriculture continues consuming this much freshwater, there may not be enough to go around.

This tug-of-war, in its most elementary terms, is one in which agricultural water use competes with each person’s daily water requirements.

The broken water system

We’re dealing with a situation where, in some parts of the world, farmers are using too much water to grow too much food for a select number of people; while in other parts of the world people go hungry because of a lack of water and, consequently, food. The situation is illogical, to say the least.

We’re pumping a precious resource down the drain. Water is vital for the human body. Blood is 90% water and people who don’t have access to enough clean drinking water can suffer from a long list of ailments, including kidney damage, diarrhea, cholera, polio, high blood pressure and urinary tract infections, which are the second most common type of infection.

Agricultural water consumption

If agriculture could adjust to produce the amount of food that people actually consume, it would help mitigate water waste. There’s a lot of fine-grained food waste data available. For example, according to a report from the Cranfield University School of Management, 10–15% of food waste in the Netherlands is “attributable to the consumers, a considerably high figure compared to 2–6 per cent waste in retail markets, 2–5 per cent waste in transport, 2–10 per cent waste in trade operations and 1–2 per cent waste in production.”

Farms could take into account the amount of food typically wasted – the food that goes unsold in supermarkets and shops, the food that gets thrown out by consumers – and reduce production levels. This would imply a regulated, cooperative market, with correspondence between Governments, researchers and farmers. Or, consumers could waste less food, meaning agriculture (which, again, accounts for 70% of freshwater withdrawals) could grow fewer crops and use less water, based on the decrease in demand for food.

However, the market doesn’t work this way at all. There’s no incentive for production and purchasing levels to decrease. Farms produce as much food as the environment and land permits. In the industrialised food system, monoculture farms compete to over-produce certain kinds of profitable crops – corn (“we have more than enough), soy, wheat, rice – while small farms compete to turn any sort of profit at all.

When it comes to the food market, farms only see about 16% of the money made from their produce. Middlemen, including processors and supermarkets, make the other 84%. This means farms think a great deal more about maximizing their share of the 16% than they do about conserving water that has historically been in plentiful supply.

Economically embattled small farms use as much irrigated water as is available to produce crops when the climate allows. Industrial agriculture relies on irrigation and groundwater reserves. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, about 10% of global food production relies on the depletion of groundwater. Soil is capable of holding up to eight times more water than all rivers combined. Yet, according to Pew, “The deep plowing and monoculture cropping methods employed by industrial agriculture have led to severe soil erosion and loss of organic matter, shrinking the natural soil reservoir.” Therefore, according to Jerry Hatfield, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment: “We’re losing 20% of our crop, 80% of the time due to temporary water shortage.”

Farm subsidies 

“The truth is, most of the world’s water woes can be solved with enough money and willpower,” says Scott Moore, water resource specialist and Senior Fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. Moore pinpoints the issue at hand: worldwide, in “virtually every country”, governments subsidise water supply to farmers.

In the US, large farms with over $1 million in income increasingly dominate the landscape. They gobble up subsidies and land. According to the USDA, only 2.9% of farms are large farms with over $1 million in income, but they account for 42% of production, compared with 24% for small farms (midsize farms with an annual gross cash farm income between $350,000 and $1 million account for the other 34% of production value). Commercial farms, which are only 10.1% of farms, received 73% of commodity payments and 83% of crop insurance indemnities in 2016.

Large farms use the most water (after all, they produce the most crops), yet according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Much of industrial monoculture’s harvest goes to feed livestock in concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.” In other words, the majority of the crops that large monoculture farms produce aren’t crops that people eat. They’re crops that livestock eat in CAFOs that lead to water pollution and contamination. Large farms aren’t working to minimise industrial agriculture’s water consumption and pollution. Farm subsidies likely increase their overuse of water and, according to The Guardian’s Roger Cowe, lead to “unintended, environmentally harmful consequences.”

It’s not that governments don’t try to do anything about water contamination. For example, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) passed new farming rules for water in 2018. In the US, the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System regulates CAFOs. These rules, however, don’t cover overuse.

Moore points out that few countries address the problem of overuse because “the provision of water for both drinking and agriculture is seen as a core function of the state, and one that should be provided either for free or at highly subsidised rates.”

Addressing overuse

One way to disincentivise overuse of water by farms is to raise the price of water. Yet – with a few exceptions, such as Israel and Singapore – Moore says that governments don’t do this for economic and political reasons. They don’t want to overburden struggling farms that may not be able to afford to pay more for water in the first place; and in democratic nations such as the US, big farms and farm cooperatives are key constituencies for politicians.

In 2010, the UN explicitly declared the human right to water, calling upon “states and international organisations to provide financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer, to help countries, in particular developing countries, to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.”

Policymakers for developed democratic nations must consider the impact on citizens who face water scarcity, as well as countries in turmoil (such as Yemen) where water scarcity is a major problem. A developed nation’s overuse of water might seem like a separate issue from war-torn nations’ water scarcity. But is it? Instead of over-subsidising farms that waste water, legislators could help farms maximise efficiency and earmark the savings for water security measures at home and abroad.

Regenerative sustainable agriculture

Governments can start by granting more money in subsidies to farms that use regenerative agriculture practices. Regenerative agriculture includes no-till or minimum tillage, which increases soil organic matter, improving the soil’s ability to absorb and hold water. Natural grazing cycles for livestock help plants to grow and improves not only water retention in soils but also sequesters carbon. Cover crops, crop rotations, compost and animal manures help improve the soil’s fertility, meaning farmers won’t need to use synthetic and artificial fertilisers, and fertile soil with a good groundwater concentration will help crops grow without the need for excess irrigation.

Oregon State University (OSU) highlights multiple sustainable agriculture techniques for efficient irrigation. Farmers can use sensors to monitor soil water content and schedule irrigation accordingly. The more water the soil can hold, the less irrigation is needed. Instead of furrow irrigation, which is notoriously inefficient, farmers can use sprinkler and drip systems. Certain crops, such as almonds, wine grapes and alfalfa seed, respond well to deficit irrigation, which is the practice of under-watering crops during part of the growing season. According to OSU, corn and wheat will even grow with “carefully controlled deficit irrigation.” Conservation tillage helps reduce water loss from soil to air, and sedimentation basins can collect run-off for reuse.

Government administrators can allot water reserves to farmers according to data on crop water usage and soil water retention. Farmers can install automated drip systems that – although expensive – are extremely efficient and can be programmed to water crops based on input from sensors that provide data on environmental factors affecting how much water crops need.

Farmers have to adopt these initiatives on their own accord. However, governments can redistribute subsidies to go towards promoting regenerative agriculture, as well as water conservation, and charge big farms fees for using a disproportionate amount of water. Governments can also fine farms that heedlessly produce water-intensive cash crops in drought-stricken areas.

Although you can inform and educate consumers about how much water it takes to grow an almond, you can’t obliterate consumer demand for a water-intensive product like almond milk. However, you can make it prohibitively expensive to grow almonds as a monoculture in areas that don’t have the needed water resources. In areas that do, farmers can be incentivised – or even required – to use regenerative farming practices.

In turn, funds from overuse fees and fines can go toward abating water scarcity at home and in other countries in need of humanitarian intervention.

Governments must work with farms to minimize agricultural water waste. Extra funds and water from conservation efforts must go towards improving water security for people who face water scarcity. Governments all over the world must take a long, hard look at water usage, just as citizens need to do our best at conservation. If we don’t, by 2050 we’ll be faced with a water crisis far worse than the one on our hands now.

Photograph: Michael Bourgault on Unsplash