Nav: Home

Trade could be key to balancing conservation of freshwater sources and food security

May 13, 2019

An IIASA study published in the journal Nature Sustainability today, evaluated whether water for the environment could be prioritized under growing competition from other sectors. The results indicate that this could be achieved by shifting crop production from water scarce- to water abundant regions and tripling international food trade.

Globally, the call to conserve or restore the ecological health and functioning of rivers and their associated wetlands for both human use and biodiversity is gaining traction and in many countries, efforts in this regard are already being supported by national and regional policies and legislation. To successfully implement these conservation efforts, methods have been developed to define environmental flows, in other words, the quantity, timing, and quality of water flows required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems, as well as the human livelihoods and wellbeing that depend on them. Global freshwater resources are however increasingly under pressure, with about 70% of water abstracted from freshwater ecosystems being used for the irrigation of agricultural crops. Around 40% of our food is in fact produced on irrigated lands, while the demand for water from industry, energy, and municipalities is also set to increase in the future.

According to the researchers, previous global assessments of the food-water-environment nexus did not adequately take into account the water necessary to sustain the health of freshwater ecosystems - in some instances the dimension of "water for the environment" was not considered at all. The team wanted to understand the impact that strong protection and enforcement of environmental flow requirements would have on food security and to what extent the trade of crop and livestock products between countries would be able to buffer the impacts of enforcing these requirements.

"Irrigation is often considered a silver bullet for achieving food security because irrigated croplands are often more productive than rainfed croplands due to the fact that they allow farmers to produce crops in areas and during months when rainfall is inadequate. We wanted to see if water for the environment could be prioritized even under growing competition from other sectors," explains Amanda Palazzo, a researcher with the IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program and one of the authors of the study.

The study examined how changes in the water available for irrigation impacted cropland use and expansion employing the IIASA Global Biosphere Management Model (GLOBIOM) for the analysis. Palazzo says that in the analysis, changes in rainfall due to climate change, growing competition for water from industry and households, and protections for environmental flows were considered as critical challenges for irrigated agriculture to meet the growing future demand for agricultural products. The time scale was also considered significant from both an environmental flow and a crop production perspective. When the monthly demands from municipal and industrial users were considered, the team were surprised by how little water was actually available for irrigation or the environment in regions that may appear to be water abundant at a regional and annual level.

The findings indicate that an increase in land use by 100Mha would be required to double food production by 2050 in order to meet the projected food demand of the world's growing population. There will also be a need to reallocate food production in water-abundant regions and reduce water intensive crops in dry areas. Trade policies may have an important role to play to adapt to climate change as an additional 10-20% trade flow from water-abundant regions to water-scarce regions will be needed to sustain environmental flow requirements on a global scale. In addition, the findings show that retiring irrigated cropland or shifting back to rainfed cropland may be necessary to protect environmental flow requirements and meet the growing demands from other users.

"Sustaining environmental flow requirements would only increase trade by 15%, while decreasing irrigated areas by 20-30%," says study lead author Amandine Pastor, an IIASA alumna who is currently associated with the Institute of Research for Development in France and the University of Lisbon in Portugal. "In this regard, sustainable and innovative practices such as growing crops within appropriate agro-climatic zones (e.g., planting less water-intensive crops in dry areas), developing urban and vertical agriculture, and limiting the share of meat in human diets, should be adopted." She however cautions that care should be taken with the reallocation of resources so that some regions do not deplete others.

The study shows how important it is to realize that natural resources are limited. The results indicate that it could be possible to maintain both food security and environmental flow requirements by 2050, despite the growing population and the rising impacts of climate change. "Environmental regulations on water abstractions, sustainable food production, and deforestation are fundamental to avoiding local environmental degradation, and water resources should be carefully managed between human needs and ecosystem requirements to ensure a sustainable future for humanity," says Pastor.

"Policies or targets that aim to provide adequate food and water needs for a growing population may be at odds with policies to protect the environment. Understanding how the trade-offs for sustainability and development goals play out at local context is therefore extremely important," concludes Palazzo.
-end-
Reference

Pastor A, Palazzo A, Havlik P, Biemans H, Wada Y, Obersteiner M, Kabat P, & Ludwig F (2019). The global nexus of food-trade-water sustaining environmental flows by 2050. Nature Sustainability DOI: 10.1038/s41893-019-0287-1

Contacts:

Researcher contacts

Amandine Pastor
Postdoc Research Scholar
Tel: +33 783 757 582
amandine.pastor22@gmail.com

Amanda Palazzo
Research Scholar
IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program
Tel: +43 2236 807 457
palazzo@iiasa.ac.at

Press Officer

Ansa Heyl
IIASA Press Office
Tel: +43 2236 807 574
Mob: +43 676 83 807 574
heyl@iiasa.ac.at

About IIASA:

The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) is an international scientific institute that conducts research into the critical issues of global environmental, economic, technological, and social change that we face in the twenty-first century. Our findings provide valuable options to policymakers to shape the future of our changing world. IIASA is independent and funded by prestigious research funding agencies in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe. http://www.iiasa.ac.at

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis

Related Climate Change Articles:

Mapping the path of climate change
Predicting a major transition, such as climate change, is extremely difficult, but the probabilistic framework developed by the authors is the first step in identifying the path between a shift in two environmental states.
Small change for climate change: Time to increase research funding to save the world
A new study shows that there is a huge disproportion in the level of funding for social science research into the greatest challenge in combating global warming -- how to get individuals and societies to overcome ingrained human habits to make the changes necessary to mitigate climate change.
Sub-national 'climate clubs' could offer key to combating climate change
'Climate clubs' offering membership for sub-national states, in addition to just countries, could speed up progress towards a globally harmonized climate change policy, which in turn offers a way to achieve stronger climate policies in all countries.
Review of Chinese atmospheric science research over the past 70 years: Climate and climate change
Over the past 70 years since the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Chinese scientists have made great contributions to various fields in the research of atmospheric sciences, which attracted worldwide attention.
A CERN for climate change
In a Perspective article appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tim Palmer (Oxford University), and Bjorn Stevens (Max Planck Society), critically reflect on the present state of Earth system modelling.
Fairy-wrens change breeding habits to cope with climate change
Warmer temperatures linked to climate change are having a big impact on the breeding habits of one of Australia's most recognisable bird species, according to researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).
Believing in climate change doesn't mean you are preparing for climate change, study finds
Notre Dame researchers found that although coastal homeowners may perceive a worsening of climate change-related hazards, these attitudes are largely unrelated to a homeowner's expectations of actual home damage.
Older forests resist change -- climate change, that is
Older forests in eastern North America are less vulnerable to climate change than younger forests, particularly for carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity, new research finds.
Could climate change cause infertility?
A number of plant and animal species could find it increasingly difficult to reproduce if climate change worsens and global temperatures become more extreme -- a stark warning highlighted by new scientific research.
Predicting climate change
Thomas Crowther, ETH Zurich identifies long-disappeared forests available for restoration across the world.
More Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.