05 June 2010

Food and Fuel Consumption the Biggest Environmental Stressors

Today is World Environment Day. On that occasion, UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme) this week released a report "Assessing Environmental Impacts of Production and Consumption" (press release: here, also in The Guardian). The report looks at the compound environmental impacts for human health, ecosystem health, and natural resources from industrial/agricultural production and also from a human consumption point of view. The report concludes that use of fossil fuels and consumption of foods have the most significant environmental impacts including impacts on the availability and quality of water resources:

• "Agriculture and food consumption are identified as one of the most important drivers of environmental pressures, especially habitat change, climate change, water use and toxic emissions.

• The use of fossil energy carriers for heating, transportation, metal refining and the production of manufactured goods is of comparable importance, causing the depletion of fossil energy resources, climate change, and a wide range of emissions-related impacts.

Importantly, the report suggests that increasing wealth in developing countries leads to increased environmental impact in large part because of the change to increased meat and dairy consumption that comes with economic improvements in developing countries (in addition to the increased fuel consumption). A major conclusion of the report is that a global change in our diet, away from meat and dairy consumption, is needed to lessen the large strain on environmental resources, especially land and water resources (also see The Economist special on water).

Interestingly, the report, on p. 82, makes a further note on the ambivalent role of biofuels and on the yet to be researched feedbacks between energy use, biofuels, water, and ocean water desalination (see my blog on solar power vs. biofuels):

"A final issue that needs attention, particularly when developing policy solutions related to the problems above, is to understand the linkages that can be identified between the different types of pressures on resources and the environment. [...] Another connection is identified between energy and water. Future energy supply, even with a modest contribution of biofuels, may have a huge water requirement, which certainly is not included in estimates of future water use. The energy requirements for water supply are also expected to rise, when the easily accessible freshwater supplies are overdrawn and large scale desalination of seawater might become necessary. These and other linkages are hardly identified yet and even less quantified and modelled. They are nevertheless of great importance for sustainable development policies."

The report underscores the acute timelines of taking a close look at the food-feed-fiber-(bio)fuel-connection with groundwater sustainability in agriculture, which will be the focus of "Toward Sustainable Groundwater in Agriculture", 15-17 June 2010 in San Francisco.  Clearly, the system/policy complexity and dynamic feedback between food security, which is at the core of human well-being, safe drinking water and sanitation (another key human health aspect), agriculture, and ecosystem health and specifically groundwater resource use, management, and sustainability is still largely unexplored. That's why I am very excited about the conversations at this upcoming conference.

By the way, a great resource on water and water management in agriculture (at a global scale) is the "Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture". And if you are specifically interested in learning about groundwater in agriculture around the world, your best - and probably only comprehensive - resource is Mark Giordano and Karen Villholth's phantastic book "The agricultural groundwater revolution" (17 chapters).