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The food (and water) crisis

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A growing population will require more food production, driven even higher by trends such as increasing levels of meat consumption.  The real challenge to increasing food production is not a lack of potentially arable land; it’s the lack of available water.  As the FAO says, without investments in and improvement to water management, “the prospects for improving food production are remote.”

Then there’s this little problem that a number of the world’s food producing regions are sitting atop: groundwater aquifers that are being rapidly depleted.

And the elephant in the room – climate.  In a shockingly underreported story, 2010 was the hottest year ever and ended the hottest decade ever.   While some argue that climate change could potentially improve agricultural production in some regions, overall the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment report concluded that “the negative impacts of climate change on freshwater systems outweigh its benefits”

While attribution of any particular weather event to climate change is a speculative exercise, the weather patterns currently disrupting grain prices are certainly consistent with what is predicted due to climate change.  Some even claim that every one-degree Centigrade increase in temperature will reduce grain yields by 10 percent.  The esteemed Worldwatch Institutes predicts that because of population and climate, higher food prices are here to stay.

So what about the argument that Canada will be one of the climate winners?  Russia’s recent experience is putting that to the test.  

And even if Canada suffers less than other countries, it’s certainly not immune to water scarcity and climate change.  In 2010, parts of British Columbia experienced a 1-in-50 year drought threatening ecological functioning, agriculture and businesses.   Every year, BC’s largest cities are placed under water use restrictions.

Currently, Canada’s water laws are just not up to the task of dealing with water scarcity.  When water shortages hit, there are no provisions in BC that prioritize use of water for food production and the environment.  Water use is embarrassingly wasteful and BC is in the dark ages when compared to many places when it comes to re-using water.  BC and the rest of Canada need to update these laws – fast!

Canada should also be prepared for the international community to increasingly look to Canada for water, and goods and services produced with water.   “Virtual water flows” are not from Farmville but rather refer to the increasing trend of water scarce countries outsourcing agriculture and manufacturing to “water-rich” nations.

It will also be necessary for Canada to raise its foreign aid contributions, even in these fiscally tight times.   At the very time when initiatives like the World Food Program are needed most, the ability to assist is being hobbled by food prices.

And, unfortunately, we need to brace ourselves for, and try to prevent, the international instability that will be inevitable as more and more of the world’s population are priced out of the basic act of eating.

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