Water a Key Issue as Developing Countries Drive Growth in Global Food Production

Growing agricultural sectors pose problems for water management and ecosystems.

Africa food production Madagascar rice

Photo courtesy of Africa Renewal via Flickr Creative Commons
Expanding agriculture sectors in developing countries are expected to drive growth in world food production during the next decade, posing challenges for water. Here, a farmer tends to rice fields in Madagascar. Click to see an enlarged image.

Developing countries will account for much of the world’s growth in agricultural production, demand, and trade during the next decade, as production growth in developed countries slows, according to reports from leading food policy organizations. The shift will pose challenges for the quality and abundance of water supplies in regions like South America, Asia and Africa.

Reports’ Key Water Findings
OECD-FAO Outlook
  • Global agricultural production is projected to grow at 1.5 percent annually, down from 2.1 percent in the past decade. The trend reflects rising input costs, as well as scarcer resources like water and land.
  • Low food stocks will increase the risk of price volatility. Droughts and other weather shocks, combined with low stocks, could raise crop prices 15-40 percent.
IFPRI 2012 Global Food Policy Report
  • Droughts in Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the United States played a large role in volatile food prices in 2012.
  • The idea of a “green economy” received more attention at international meetings like the 2012 Rio+20 conference. The goal is to create sustainable development and eradicate poverty.
Read more: OECD-FAO; IFPRI

The growth rate of world agricultural production is set to slow overall when compared to the growth rate of the past decade, but developing countries will continue to outpace developed countries, according to the 2013-2022 Agricultural Outlook released in June by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Average world food production will increase 1.5 percent annually, compared to the 2.1 percent annual growth seen from 2003-2012. The slowdown is a result of rising costs for agricultural inputs, such as oil and fertilizer, as well as the increasing scarcity of key resources like water and land. Climate change could also play a role by exposing crops to more severe droughts and floods and rising temperatures.

Least Developed Countries—defined by the United Nations as “low-income countries suffering from the most severe structural impediments to sustainable development”— have the greatest potential for increasing food production in the next decade. These countries are expected to exceed the world average in agricultural growth, at a rate of about 2.75 percent through 2022, while the agricultural sectors of Brazil, Russia, India and China will grow by 1.5 percent per year. In developed countries, on the other hand, farm output will increase just 0.75 percent annually over the next decade.

“Most food demand and food production growth is expected to occur in the group of developing countries, as population and economic growth are centered in these regions.” Claudia Ringler, Deputy Division Director of Environment and Production Technology at the Washington, D.C.-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), wrote to Circle of Blue. IFPRI’s 2012 Global Food Policy Report also concluded that developing countries will play a larger role in world food production and trade.

” Agriculture remains the largest water user…but economic incentives for improving water conservation in agriculture are seldom in place.”

–Claudia Ringler,
International Food Policy Research Institute

Closing the gap between agricultural production in developed countries and developing countries is an important step toward feeding a global population that is expected to reach 9 billion people and demand twice as much food by 2050. The intense agricultural systems employed by developed countries, however, have exerted much pressure on water supplies, while policies in developing countries have also allowed the mismanagement of water resources. To avoid exhausting natural resources while still boosting food production, organizations like the OECD are calling for a shift in farm policy toward “green growth.”

Water Pollution and Depletion Test Farmers
Growing agricultural sectors are leading to a “host of challenges” for water in developing countries, though these challenges vary case by case, Ringler said.

“Governance structures are often quite weak and water is seldom considered when investment decisions for industries, urban areas and even for agriculture are taken,” she wrote. “Water laws are seldom enforced. Agriculture remains the largest water user, consuming about 80 percent of all fresh water withdrawals, but economic incentives for improving water conservation in agriculture are seldom in place.”

“Green growth for food and agriculture is not only desirable and achievable, it is also essential if the food and nutrition requirements of future generations are to be met.”

–Ignacio Pérez,
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

As Circle of Blue found in India, even countries with abundant water supplies face scarcity issues due to this lack of management and conservation. Some countries, like Vietnam, that subsidize water for farmers have removed even the small irrigation service fees following the recent spate of food price crises, Ringler said. Other regions face a combination of high demand, natural scarcity, and “pollution-induced” water scarcity.

“In some developing countries, the pressure on the environment is really high,” Ignacio Pérez, of the OECD’s Trade and Agriculture Directorate, wrote to Circle of Blue. “For example, China has a fifth of world population but only 5 percent of its productive agricultural surface. Obviously, industrialization and closing the gap to western diets in these countries poses a real challenge.”

Steps Toward “Green Growth” in Agriculture
  • Increasing productivity growth through public-private partnerships. “It is important to encourage investment, diffusion of knowledge and research to help farmers close productivity gaps, especially in developing countries, where they are large.”
  • Reducing food waste. “Especially along the food supply chain in developing countries, which is particularly large. Investment in infrastructure is crucial.”
  • Creating an enabling environment. “Key institutions such as markets need to provide the right signals (e.g. prices that reflect the scarcity value of natural resources) and establish and enforce secure property rights, in particular for marine resources, land and forests, greenhouse gas emissions, and air and water quality. Growth in developing countries needs also to take these factors more into consideration in the future.”
  • Trade. “The global population has not recently grown according to land or water availability. Trade among countries that is responsible, and not distorted, will encourage the most efficient use of resources.”
Read more: OECD

While agricultural growth provides developing countries with an opportunity to improve water management, many are facing the same pollution and water depletion problems that have occurred in developed countries.

“Avoiding some of the adverse impacts on surface and groundwater supplies by developing countries will be a challenge,” Ringler said. “For now the situation looks already much worse in many developing countries—for example, the groundwater depletion in the U.S. is bad, but it’s much worse in large parts of India where more than 50 percent of food is produced from groundwater. To turn things around in the developing world requires a re-focus of investments into institution building and demand management as well as into agricultural research for better crops.”

Overcoming Water Supply Issues
In order to meet the water-agriculture challenge—in terms of water supply—countries are turning to a number of solutions. The development of multi-purpose dams for storing irrigation water, the implementation of advanced irrigation technologies, and research into crops that can tolerate droughts and floods, are all methods being pursued by developing countries to secure water and improve agricultural yields, according to Ringler.

“Green growth for food and agriculture is not only desirable and achievable, it is also essential if the food and nutrition requirements of future generations are to be met,” Pérez said. “The specific approach varies by agro-ecology, farming system and market conditions but consistently will involve increasing the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources in agricultural production systems, as well as the reduction of waste and pollution associated with inefficient input use and degraded ecosystems.”

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