Water efficient food exports: less beef, more crops

Our planet is facing a serious food and water crisis in the next 30 years. To feed nine billion people by 2050, global food production will have to increase by 50 per cent.

Water scarcity is emerging as one of the key limiting factors, which is why Canada, with ample supplies of water and land, could become a major contributor to future global food security. That means increasing our food exports – a very attractive economic opportunity. So what should Canada’s food export strategy be?

Food production uses 70 per cent of all global freshwater resources. Countries with scarce water supplies will increasingly opt to import water intensive food in order to save their remaining water for essential domestic and industrial purposes.

Typical staple crops such as wheat, soybeans, oats and corn require between 800-1,500 litres of water per kilogram of food produced. In contrast, meat production requires between 3,500-4,500 litres/per kg of water for poultry and pork, and a whopping 16,000 litres of water per kilo of beef. A typical North American meat diet requires about 5,000 litres of water daily, while a more vegetable-based diet requires about half of this amount.

In Canada, food for export is mostly produced in the Prairies, where climatic conditions are highly variable and water resources are becoming increasingly stressed.  It is vital to account for the water requirement in food in order to assure sufficient supplies are available for all other users.

At present, exporters focus on maximizing economic returns, and this makes meat export one of the most attractive options. Considering how much water this takes, how inefficient such production is in terms of energy conversion, and the water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions generated in the process, this option must be re-examined.

While producers receive significant economic benefits from beef exports, they do not pay for the costs associated with environmental impacts. The costs to remediate water pollution from livestock and greenhouse gases are borne by the public. Economists usually refer to these costs as externalities and they are rarely incorporated in full cost accounting.

Livestock production is now one of the major contributors of non-point sources of water pollution in streams and is impacting major lakes and waterways. Beef generates substantial quantities of methane, which amounts to four per cent of the annual greenhouse gas emissions in Canada (CO2 equivalent).

Climatic variability is a game-changer for the world, and it should be for Canadian farmers.  A clever precautionary approach will be to produce food for export that is first water efficient, of high value, and has the smallest ecological footprint.

For a detailed analysis of these water trade issues, go to: http://wmc.landfood.ubc.ca/webapp/VWM

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UBC Reports | Vol. 59 | No. 1 | Dec. 18, 2012

Prof. Hans Schreier, Faculty of Land & Food Systems Martin Dee Photograph.

Prof. Hans Schreier, Faculty of Land & Food Systems Martin Dee Photograph.

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A typical North American meat diet requires about 5,000 litres of water daily, while a more vegetable-based diet requires about half of this amount.

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