Food Systems and Freshwater Resource Use

For this assignment, students will make meaningful connections between freshwater resource use and industrial food systems.  This will allow the lessons learned from Lookout Pass to be examined in the important context of food cultivation and distribution.

In class this week, we qualitatively and quantitatively compared two different food production systems (LEDC’s and MEDC’s).  We compared food calories, packaging calories, and discussed the energy used in transporting food.  Now it is time to examine the role of freshwater in the production and distribution of food in these systems.

Your assignment:

1.) Find a Ted Talk, youtube video, or recent news article online (within the last year or two) that explains/illustrates the role of freshwater in the production and/or distribution of food in food systems.

2.) Watch the video or read the article.

3.) In the comment section below, post a link to the video/article along with a written summary about it.  Summaries should be 7-10 sentences long and address how food systems are related to freshwater resource use.

4.) Make sure to include your First Name, Last Initial at the bottom of your post.

Due Date:  Monday March 3rd (even if we have a snowday!)

-Mr. Esler


17 thoughts on “Food Systems and Freshwater Resource Use

  1. A link to the TED talk:
    This TED Talk was given by Fahad Al-Attiya, and was delivered in the country of Qatar. Unfortunately, the entire talk was not on the TED website, but it was possible to obtain a good amount of information from it. The beginning of the talk discussed the early 1900’s in Qatar, and the development to the modern day. With the discovery of oil in 1939, there was an economic and growth boom. The country went from a nomadic country with 11,000 people, to a modern, very wealthy country with 1.7 million people. In Qatar, the average rainfall is 76 mm a year, which is very little when compared to countries like Brazil that average 1,782 mm a year. However, Qatar averages one of the highest per capita consumption of water. Qatar also grows a large amount of its own food. To do this, Qatar has a massive desalination plant. In order to be sustainable, this plant is powered with solar power, since Qatar is a very sunny place. A downside of a desalination plant is an increase in salt concentration in the ocean, which eventually could be toxic to aquatic life. This plant does help Qatar immensely. It helps drive education, research and development, industry, and the market in Qatar. The water is an essential part in all factors of life in Qatar, even with its negative impacts on the environment.
    Josh W.

  2. (the link to the documentary- narrated by Matt Damon)

    This documentary is part of the PBS series “A Journey to Planet Earth” and it features Lester Brown, a famous environmental analyst. The video focuses on the issue that the world is having currently with global warming and the destruction of ecosystems. These ecosystems are key in order to get natural resources, such as freshwater, that are needed to produce food. Food production is completely reliant on freshwater in order to grow plants, feed livestock, raise fish, etc. As ecosystems are degraded and resources like freshwater become more scarce, there is a direct impact on food production itself. The video explains how all of these, the environmental changes and the affect on food production, causes civilizations to collapse and fail. The video really shows the importance of a healthy ecosystem, including clean water, for humans to continue to survive.

    Abby P.

  3. Article on the role of water in food industry:

    This article dives into the specifics about water use in the food industry and in agriculture. Water is used more by irrigation than any other human function. Seventy percent of the water that humans get from rivers and groundwater is used for irrigation. This role of irrigation allows plant growth, mainly for food, and then these plants are taken to processing centers for further production and distribution. Many large food corporations own enormous amounts of land for farming of certain crops, and water via irrigation is the number one ingredient for crop production. In addition to plant growth, water is also used in cleaning processes, heating/boiling processes, etc. Livestock also need to consume large amounts of water for food production. In this article it states how much water each product used. It ranges all the way from poultry to juices and hamburgers. In addition there is a table that compares water use for food industry in several different countries.

    Anthony C.


    Most water taken from streams and aquifers goes into food and agriculture, around 70%. Surprisingly enough the production of meat can require up to twenty times the amount of water than is needed for most cereals and crops. Water is used in producing and distributing items from 4000 cubic meters per head of cattle to 32 liters of water for a single 2 gram microchip. Water is truly in everything. Meat and crops require astronomically large amounts of water, most of which comes from rainfall. More economically developed countries tend to use less water per each food product. This is most likely because these countries have more money to invest in water saving techniques which in turn saves those countries money. Agriculture and production of items that require water will continue to dominate economies and as long as we continue to increase our water saving abilities there should be less water problems than there has been in the past.

    Michael C.


    This article covers many aspects of how the distribution of water world-wide can enormously effect the production and/or distribution of food in food systems. The article further discusses how shortages of water may have a major effect on food production. Agriculture competes with domestic and commercial (municipal) consumers, and also with large-scale industrial users. The demand from both these sectors is currently increasing, roughly in line with growing global levels of prosperity (though water demand eventually plateaus in high-income countries). Water is also required to maintain functioning ecosystems and environmental flow requirements (ERFs) are not traditionally included in water calculations. Sufficient environmental flow is critical for freshwater ecosystems (and inland capture fisheries), but also for some terrestrial ecosystems.Future water supply will be strongly influenced by climate change, not least because evapotranspiration occurs at a faster rate in a warmer climate. At the end of the day, only time will tell whether or not the role of freshwater will begin to effect the production and distribution of food.

    Jake Harrison

  6. In this video it claims that 70% of our fresh water consumption goes directly to our agriculture industry. This means it is going to the plants and animals in that industry. The video also explains why we build dams, for storing water, for agriculture, for drinking, and hydroelectricity. They also talk about the cons of the dams. When organic matter is at a stand still it begins to decompose thus releasing methane into the atmosphere. People in the video claim that some dams cause more of an environmental impact than coal factories. another fun fact the video states is that in LA they rely on at least 20% of electricity in their city to come from dams. But in years of droughts LA spends over 1 billion dollars to ship water in as far as Wyoming in order to meet these demands. Without easy supply to water prices of the food industry rise. When fresh water cant be used in the food industry they use chemicals to make it “safe”. Animals/ crops use this water and absorb the chemicals. Then you as a human eat the animal/ plant and now you have contracted some of the chemicals from the water.

    Cody J

  7. This is a video on aquaculture. It explains the impact of aquaculture on our surroundings both economically and ecologically. Aquaculture is a lot bigger of an industry than i think any of us realize. It is composed of a variety of fish species raised on fish farms and then harvested. The WWF talks of the impact that these fish farms have on the surrounding bodies of water whether they be fresh water or sea water. The fish who “slip by” the farms and do make it into the wild have yet to be tested on their survival rate and the possible harmful effects they might have on the environment or vice versa. Agriculturists are not being required to be held reliable on what product they are creating and distributing.

    In addition to the changing climate affecting the agricultural productions, shrinking freshwater supplies for irrigation are an increasingly serious factor as well. Scientists and researchers are predicting that global warming will reduce certain widely used agricultural products such as soy, wheat, and rice by up to 43% at the end of the 21st century. However, researchers are also discovering that the lack of freshwater supply that can be used for irrigation will speed the process immensely. The article states that irrigation is by far the largest human use of freshwater and therefore will most directly be affected by a reduction in availability. Although the models researchers have built have yet to been able to incorporate systems such as the carbon cycle to show accurate predictions of water levels, the outcome is looking grim. Contrastingly, while the model predicts water shortages in Western United States, India and China, many other regions could end up with a surplus of water. Researchers continue to look into the full extent of consequences that could come about if water shortages continue. Researchers state the best way to protect our Earth from the consequences is to spread awareness early, and help fabricate new innovative ideas before it is too late.
    Gabrielle V.

  9. Humans use over 70% of the available freshwater on Earth for agricultural purposes. This video showcased the major problems associated with our current levels of food production, distribution, and consumption, especially with regards to water. Water is one of the main resources used to produce food. Whether it is used for irrigation or for sustaining livestock, freshwater is essential to our food system. But with the world’s population growing at exponential rates, food consumption has soared to unprecedented levels, and we are beginning to realize the effects of this on water. This video provided two shocking examples of the effects of food production on our freshwater supply. The first example was the Colorado River. Since the 1950s, the Colorado River has been a major source for freshwater in the US, especially in the agricultural sector. The size and depth of the river have decreased significantly since the mid-20th century, and now the river is nearly dried out. We have literally consumed an entire river for irrigation. The other example was of the Aral Sea. In the 1970s, this massive body of water provided unique habitats for aquatic species and contributed to freshwater consumption in regional areas. However, this once flourishing sea is now mostly desert due to over consumption of the freshwater for agriculture. The only way to conserve our already limited amount of freshwater is to be sustainable with food. We need to reduce consumption rates, and find more efficient ways of irrigation in order to avert a freshwater collapse.

  10. Article on waste water in industrial food processing facilities:

    This article, published on October 9, 2013, gives a brief description of how pollutants enter our freshwater supply via the food industry. It also covers a few possible improvements to the system. To paraphrase, the article says that a major portion of water in food processing is used to clean the food. During the cleaning, the water pics up pollutants such as feces, phosphates, nitrates and pieces of meat depending on if the food is meat or produce. After the food has been cleaned, the water is then sent into the sewage system and (hopefully) to a waste water treatment facility. Not only does this cost the corporation money, it costs the water treatment plant more to process the extra pollutants. If these facilities were to use less water, they would not only save themselves money, but they could have a positive environmental effect. In this article, there were links to 10 other sources that elaborate on all of these ideas in greater detail. It is interesting to know how we use our water despite the fact it is key to our survival.

    Verbeugung vor dem allmächtigen Nic Steiner!!!

  11. TED talk video link:

    This TED talk, Turning Water into Food, is from Nov. 19 2013 and is given by Bruce Bugbee. It is about how little water we have on our Earth and how much of it we use just to make food. If the Earth was the size of a globe, the amount of total water would be the size of a ping pong ball, the amount of freshwater would be the size of marble, and the amount of available freshwater would be the size of a mustard seed. That mustard seed sized amount of water is recycled throughout the entire earth for every thing we use water for, including production of food. Each person in the US uses several hundred gallons of water in the food we eat everyday. Food is our largest source of water usage. We also dedicate 70% of our water resources to agriculture. When water is evaporated it rains back down as freshwater that goes into river, lakes, and in the ground. We can recycle and use this water for years before it makes its way back to an ocean and turns back into, unusable salt water. When water is used for agricultural purposes, we lose the ability to recycle and reuse it. With so much of our already small water supply being used for agriculture we are actually losing water that we would normally have for our use for years. We need water for food so we can’t not use water for agriculture so the only solution for this problem is to be more efficient with our irrigation and agricultural water use.

    Caden Robertson


    This article at first seems relatively unrelated to the topic, as much of the focus is on marine life. However with further investigation, it illustrated how freshwater is a key role in the food system. In Pakistan, the economic gaps between upper, middle and lower class are very substantial. As a result, even the diets vary greatly between the wealthy and the poor. If food is short, naturally, the majority will go to the richest, and little will be saved for the poorest in the country. To combat this, an entire ecosystem has yet to be explored, seafood. With the amount of marine life near Pakistan, it has been suspected that seafood can become a staple part of middle and lower class meals. Once this change takes place though, oceans will not be enough. Aquaculture and freshwater fish farms must be explored. Basically, having access to freshwater could have the potential to make Pakistan a healthier and more stable country as far as their food industry is concerned.

    Kassidy Bane

  13. In this video the CEO of Coca-Cola is talking about how if they do not have any water then there business will not be able to survive. If you are looking at it from the business side this is a serious thing. Almost every product has a content of water in them. If we were to run out of fresh water then a lot of the company’s would not be able to last. Also the CEO talked about an idea… This idea was a plan to bring more fresh water to third world countries that are LEDC’s. This is very good and smart idea, the problem is that there are so many people out there that need the access to water. Finally one last thing that Coca-Cola offered was that they were going to try to come up with a way to make their products with using less freshwater, therefor to keep the fresh water supply replenishable. Many people feel as if we can come up with a better way to produce products with out using up our fresh water source.

    Cody Hart.

  14. By starting off with staggering pictures of what was once tropical rainforest, Dr. Jonathan Foley, the director of the Institute of the Environment and University of Minnesota, illustrated the changing effects of a “dominant human presence”. Many pictures showed the clearing of land in order to cultivate the cleared areas. Over 16 million square miles of land are used as croplands, and 30 million for pastures in the world, totaling over 40 percent of the entire Earth surface. Technology has allowed for the growing of crops in areas that were once considered infertile, thanks greatly in part to the use of irrigation. Freshwater is essential to growing crops in isolated areas. One example showed how lettuce was being grown in the middle of a desert; however with no nearby water, freshwater was being drained from the Colorado River and transported to the desert. As a result of increasing drainage amounts, the Colorado River no longer flows into the ocean. Not only is water being completely extracted from areas until depletion (the Aral Sea in the USSR), but the quality of the water is also declining with a strong contamination of fertilizers. This TED talk illustrated and explained very well the connection between freshwater use and food production systems. With nearly 70 percent of global freshwater withdraws used in harvesting crops, the effects of the problem are impossible to overlook.



    This article refers to a study performed by Netherland’s University of Twente, which assesses the major uses of global water use. Agriculture topped the list, using an estimated 92% of available water resources annually. Agriculture is one of the most taxing uses for freshwater sources internationally, with the US, China, and India listed as the top consumers; the US has lower population count than either, but leads in per capita consumption of freshwater. The article discusses what the study calls “virtual water.” Virtual water refers to water shipped into water-poor nations for use, making water a commodity for many businesses. Often, the use of virtual water encourages unsustainable water usage practices, which many developing countries (such as China, which imports 10% of its water) find hard to curb. Finally, the raising of meat was shown to be a major consumer, especially when animals are corn-fed rather than grass-fed. The article outlines the importance of adopting more sustainable practices when it comes to producing the world’s food, and lists several realistic solutions that could potential lessen the strain put on our current resources.

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