Why Efficiency Won’t Solve Our Water Problems

This post was originally published on the Union of Concerned Scientists in their series on the financial and environmental impacts of the 2012 Drought in America.

A complex landscape being simplified: a palm oil plantation replacing tropical rainforest in Borneo. SOURCE: Rhett Butler, Mongabay.com

By Doug Boucher

The drought of 2012 has reminded us that water is a scarce resource, even though we pay fractions of a penny per gallon for it and expect that it’ll be there every time we turn on the tap. We depend on it not only for our drinking and washing and especially for the food we eat, but also for generating the electric power on which our economy depends.

There’s no doubt that we can use water more efficiently and that this would be socially and ecologically desirable. But this week, as I’ve being participating in the Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) in Portland, I’ve started to doubt whether efficiency will really solve our drought and water problems. The reason is that for another vital resource — the land — efficiency doesn’t seem to be enough.

The hypothesis that using land to produce food more efficiently — that is, increasing agricultural yields — will “save” more land for nature, is called “land sparing” and is often associated with the famous crop breeder Norman Borlaug. It was the subject of a session of scientific presentations here at the ESA yesterday, including one by me. Although I’m by no means unbiased on this subject, I’d say that the messages of the presenters about the validity of the land sparing hypothesis mostly ranged from “It’s wrong” to “it depends.” (I gave both answers, but with more emphasis on the first one.)

Land that hasn’t been spared: the tallgrass prairie in Illinois. SOURCE: K.R. Robertson, Illinois Natural History Survey.

An example of the first was the talk by Jahi Chappell of the University of Washington-Vancouver, who showed that increasing agricultural yield seems to do much less to reduce hunger in developing countries than social changes such as improving the status of women. The second kind of answer came in the presentation of Frank Egan of Penn State, who argued that land sparing works to preserve plant biodiversity in simple environments, but that in more complex landscapes a different strategy, “land sharing,” is preferable.

Laurie Drinkwater of Cornell University made the connection between agriculture and water quality, showing how U.S. agricultural and biofuels policies that promote massive corn production in the Midwest lead to excessive applications of nitrogen fertilizer, much of which runs off and contaminates streams, rivers, and ground water.

Doug Boucher is an expert in preserving tropical forests to curtail global warming emissions. He has been participating in United Nations international climate negotiations since 2007 and his expertise has helped shape some of the U.N. policies. He holds a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Michigan.

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