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What is the Greatest Threat to Global Food Security?

Emily Rego

It is said that “the greatest threat to global food security is water insecurity.”¹ However, more precisely, this statement should read “the greatest threat to global food security is global food production”, which is the largest contributor to water insecurity. Currently, farming accounts for 70% of water consumed around the world. While this water is going towards feeding the planet, a noble cause, 40% of that water is lost to poor irrigation systems and water management.² The continued water depletion and pollution by the agriculture industry is a global crisis that will only be solved with a global effort toward water sustainability.

One of the primary issues is that the world seems to have a taste for the most water-intensive crops. Our craving for animal products, both meat and dairy, consume large quantities of water resources. Roughly 77% of croplands are used to feed and raise livestock, as opposed to feeding humans directly, consuming overwhelming amounts of water, all while livestock only account for 18% of the world’s calorie consumption and 37% of total protein consumption.³ If this land instead was used to produce food for people, there would be enough food to feed all 10 billion people soon to live here. Many of our other favorite crops also hold high water footprints. To produce 1 pound of product, sugar needs 400 gallons, rice requires 650 gallons, and coffee demands 2,500 gallons of water.² Due to the high demand for these foods, water is highly subsidized, resulting in farmers paying very little for the water they use, encouraging overconsumption. In doing so, farmers are over-pumping the groundwater, depleting the aquifers they will rely on more heavily in the future, thus causing a cascade of environmental and economic impacts.⁴

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Many solutions to this issue exist, most even in use today. It is estimated that reducing irrigation by as little as two percent globally could avert shortages in one-third of the affected basins.⁵ In order to do so, a switch to drip irrigation systems would be vital and could save up to 80% of a farm’s agricultural water consumption compared to standard irrigation systems.² Farmers could also save water by using soil moisture sensors, and planting more drought-resistant crops.⁵ Another viable solution would entail a change in our diet, primarily relying less on meat and dairy, however people are unlikely to volunteer to make this change for the sake of water security. Governments must also take action, not only on national levels, but at the farm level as well. Incentives need to be put into place that encourage farmers to conserve and use less water. Restrictions should also be placed on polluting inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers. Existing water conservation regulations must be more strongly enforced and harmful policies that encourage unsustainable water consumption and pollution need to be removed.⁴

Some of these techniques are currently being utilized in Nebraska, one of the top agricultural-producing states in the U.S. The state has developed and invested in programs for advanced water management and irrigation technologies, improved breeding techniques for livestock, increased rainwater harvesting, and overall better water management which have reduced water consumption in the state over the past several decades while also increasing crop production.¹ While this example brings hope to the capability of these solutions, until they are used on a global scale, water insecurity will continue to threaten our planet and people.


  1. McCormick & P., Salzberg, A. (2020, September 30). Agriculture’s Achilles’ Heel: Water Insecurity Is the Greatest Threat to Sustaining Global Food Production. CSIS. Retrieved November 23, 2022, from

  2. Balsom, P. (2020, September 28). Water Usage In The Agricultural Industry. High Tide.

  3. Ritchie, H. (2019, November 11). Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture. Our World in Data. Retrieved November 24, 2022, from

  4. Water and agriculture. (n.d.). OECD. Retrieved November 23, 2022, from

  5. Heggie, J. (2020, August 12). Why is America running out of water? Science.

Disclaimer: All information, content and materials on this blog are for general information purposes only. Any opinion expressed by the author is not necessarily the opinion of Penn Club H2O or University of Pennsylvania.

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