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STEP Class Highlight

The Water Problem (That Is Also Our Food Problem)

By Sydney Stuenkel, Marketing major and Environmental Action and Leadership minor

Imagine crossing the finish line of the Chicago Marathon. After running 26.2 consecutive miles, all you want in this world (aside from never running another step) is a cup of water. A volunteer race usher greets you, guides you out of the finish line area, and hands you a cup. A cup you presume to be full of ice cold water. Imagine that cup is empty. Not a great feeling, especially considering that water is the most basic necessity of life—marathon or not. Although this scenario was not the case for the 2015 Chicago Marathon, who’s to say water will be in our cups when we cross the finish line in 30, 40, or 50 years?

Water often is not at the forefront in discussions about our food system. Frequently presented as two separate issues, food and water are in fact inherently intertwined. Both are essential to life and our current methods of their use are wholly unsustainable. Water is a commons, which means no one technically owns it, and it is—or rather, it should be—available to everyone. This idealistic view, however, does not translate to real-world equitable water access, consumption, and distribution. We cannot, of course, summon rainfall in areas experiencing droughts, or help the fact that some of us live in areas with an abundant freshwater supply (i.e. Chicago’s convenient location next to Lake Michigan). We can help what exactly we use our freshwater for. And drinking isn’t even close to being the number one use. Agriculture is the main use of freshwater on a worldwide scale. Agriculture accounts for 69% of global water use, while municipal use accounts for a mere 7%.

This high percentage makes some degree of sense; we need to grow food, and food requires water just as we do. The problem with this high percentage lies in the inefficient methods of water use for industrial agriculture, most directly related to irrigation practices. The FAO estimates that crops use only 45% of the water provided to them through irrigation. Another problem with industrial agriculture is the pollution of surface water and aquifers. The EPA projects that 70% of the pollution in U.S. rivers and streams comes from industrial farming practices. Water pollution from fertilizer run-off has serious environmental implications, including the eutrophication of waterways and subsequent dead zones, such as the infamous dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Water is a necessary input in any form of agriculture; however, sustainable agriculture practices employ more efficient methods, such as drip irrigation. The Talking Farm in Skokie, IL uses drip irrigation for their urban farm. Farm manager Matt Ryan showed us the tubing they use for drip irrigation and explained that the only downside of the method is disposing the tubing after a decade or two of use.

It’s easy to argue that we must use large inputs of water to grow our food and experience the adverse side effects because that’s the way it’s always been. Agriculture, however, is not the only, or even the original, way that humans obtained food in the past. In his article The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race, Jared Diamond argues that agriculture, despite its praise and glorification, is one of the most detrimental things we’ve done to ourselves and our environment. He contends that we may have been better off as the hunters and gathers we used to be. In regards to agriculture’s impact on our world’s freshwater supply, this view is certainly justified.  And while it may be impractical to revert to the hunting and gathering ways of our ancestors, their naturally limited water use is worth consideration. How have we gone from drinking, conserving, and appreciating freshwater sources to depleting them faster than they can be recharged? How can we justify practicing inefficient irrigation practices when not all citizens of the world have access to freshwater for drinking?  I suppose, as Barbara Kingsolver claims in her memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, “humans can be fairly ridiculous animals.” If we want to remediate our food system, scrutinizing our water use for agriculture is essential. We need water, we need food, and it’s about time we start acting like our lives depend on them.