Joining the dots

Understanding the connections between food, energy, water and environment.

Quentin Grafton

Uncategorized, Environment & energy, Food & water | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia

20 November 2014

Quentin Grafton on global insecurity in food, energy, environment and water.

What do rising rice prices, social instability in the Middle East, and the growth in biofuels have in common? They are all, in part, caused by the unintended consequences of policies that fail to understand the interconnections between food, energy, environment and water.

The global food price shock of 2007-08, triggered by higher oil prices, raised the number of undernourished and those in extreme poverty by more than 100 million people. A 2011 drought in China globalised into much higher bread prices in 2010-11 in Egypt that, in turn, contributed to the ‘Arab Spring’.

Places where there are high population densities, low incomes, and already high levels food insecurity are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of failing to understand and act on these connections. One place is South Asia and, within it, the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Megna Basin, where irrigation for food production is highly dependent on groundwater, but effective plans to ensure its sustainable long-term use are not yet in place.

Even in rich countries, such as Australia, poor infrastructure planning and decision making in the Murray-Darling Basin has imposed very large costs on water and environmental systems and has harmed food production systems. Equally important, but different trade-offs, exist in many other rivers basins, such as the Colorado Basin in the US, the Mekong River in South-East Asia, or the Nile or Volta Basins in Africa.

Global insecurity is not just about food insecurity despite the fact that the world, by 2050, will need at least 60 per cent more food to be available. Globally, we will likely consume about 50 per cent more freshwater and use at least 40 per cent more primary energy.

A zero growth strategy in food availability or incomes is not an option for the ‘bottom billion’. There are over 800 million people chronically undernourished, about 800 million people without access to an improved source of water, and 1.3 billion people without access to electricity. They need more food, better quality water, and cleaner, cheaper and more reliable energy.

Under ‘business as usual’ the world’s ability to meet its projected food needs will be harmed by environmental degradation, especially in terms of soil and water. The alternative is the sustainable intensification of agriculture or a ‘greener revolution’ whereby crop yields increase without placing additional land in cultivation or causing environmental harms, such as land degradation.

Sustainable intensification of agriculture will need to respond to a slowing of global average crop yield increases. Given that expansion of land area in crops has major environmental costs any further reduction in crop yield growth is a concern. At a global level the current average global crop yield growth of the world’s major cereals is slowing and currently varies between 0.9 per cent and 1.6 per cent per year. By comparison, the absolute minimum rate of crop yield growth is 1.1 per cent per year for staple crops, if the projected 60 per cent increase in food requirement by 2050 is to be met.

This is not simply a technological challenge, rather it requires overcoming governance failures and developing ways to better diagnose systemic risks, improve resilience of food, energy, environment and water systems to shocks and, above all, better decision-making. That is, we must improve how we make decisions such that with an additional 2.4 billion people by 2050 we can feed the world without crossing planetary boundaries or damaging the land, water and environment on which food production depends.

A ‘Group of 40’ of academics and practitioners from leading universities, multilateral organisations and non-governmental organisations have come together to respond to global insecurity (see We know what to do. We are known as the Food, Energy, Environment and Water (FE2W) Network, launched on 26 November 2014 at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. We have solutions to the clear and present danger of global insecurity caused by systemic risks across food, energy environment and water.

Wars, civil and political conflicts are the symptoms of ‘systems at risk’ and not the underlying causes of insecurity. Together, we must face the global risks. We know what must be done.

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