Water for Food

The Elephant in the Room

May 27, 2014

Roberto Lenton, Founding Executive Director for the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute, introduced the “Water for Food” panel discussion at Water for Our Future, an event helping shape the agenda for the 7th World Water Forum. Photo credit: ©WWF/McNamara.

Roberto Lenton, Founding Executive Director for the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute, introduced the “Water for Food” panel discussion at Water for Our Future, an event helping shape the agenda for the 7th World Water Forum. Photo credit: ©WWF/McNamara.

By Roberto Lenton, DWFI founding executive director

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on water for food at Water for our Future , a lead-up event to the triennial World Water Forum to be held April 2015. The lively panel discussion was wide-ranging and informative – and to me, at least, very encouraging. I was particularly cheered by three aspects of the discussion.

One was the clear view that the water for food challenge is the elephant in the room within the water community. Agriculture uses two-thirds of the world’s freshwater withdrawals and is undoubtedly the biggest freshwater polluter, yet often receives far less attention in water circles than that impact would suggest. So it was heartening to find that water for food was chosen as one of three key topics for discussion at the event, to see the spotlight shifting toward this enormous aspect of the water challenge, and to sense an increasing recognition that we will be unable to achieve real water security if we don’t find ways to address this challenge.

A second was that, despite widespread agreement that achieving food security for all must be a top priority for the 21st century, no one in the room was advocating for a bigger slice of the water pie. On the contrary, the emphasis was much more on how to use less water to produce more food and to do so with less impact on water quality. Agriculture may compete for a limited resource, but no one was suggesting that agriculture needs a bigger portion of this resource. Instead, the emphasis was much more on using science and technology to achieve and sustain global food security without compromising the use of water for other pressing human and environmental needs, such as for safe drinking water and sanitation, which is so vital for health, dignity and development. It’s a different kind of advocacy, completely compatible with and supportive of other water uses.

And a third was the call by several participants for farmers and other members of the agricultural community to be at the table in discussions about water. Farmers manage 70 percent of the world’s water, and nobody understands the practical realities of water and agriculture better than they do. Few in the agricultural community, from farmers to researchers, fail to appreciate the importance of water in agriculture. We need the presence of farmers and the agricultural community to shift more attention to the agricultural elephant in the room and to help develop practical solutions.

These aspects of the discussion made me quite hopeful for the future. And I am especially heartened when I see more and more students and young professionals at the University of Nebraska and elsewhere working hard to take on the water for food challenge. I’m encouraged by their enthusiasm and energy and by their willingness and commitment to find solutions to the challenges ahead.

View the panel discussion.

Roberto Lenton, a leading global expert in water and development, joined DWFI as its founding executive director in 2012.

Panelists for the “Water for Food” session included (from left), Gustavo Fonseca, Global Environment Facility; Steven Stockton, Director of Civil Works, US Army Corps of Engineers; Steve Peterson, General Mills; Vidal Garza, Fundación FEMSA and Ann M. Bartuska, United States Department of Agriculture. ©WWF/McNamara.

Panelists for the “Water for Food” session included (from left), Gustavo Fonseca, Global Environment Facility; Steven Stockton, Director of Civil Works, US Army Corps of Engineers; Steve Peterson, General Mills; Vidal Garza, Fundación FEMSA and Ann M. Bartuska, United States Department of Agriculture. credit: ©WWF/McNamara.


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