Research and Economic Development, Office of


Date of this Version



University of Nebraska–Lincoln Office of Research and Economic Development (2010). Proceedings of the 2010 Water for Food Conference. Lincoln.


Copyright 2010, The Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. All rights reserved.


Feeding 9 Billion and Maintaining the Planet: Meeting the Challenge of 2050

Environmental concerns, which fall outside normal market powers, require special incentives and consideration in water resource decisions, Marty Matlock said.

Given that the world’s population now consumes past the point of sustainability, should sustainability be a market choice for consumers? “This should be pre-competitive,” Matlock said. “The consumers should have confidence that everything they buy complies with a certain threshold of humanity, of behavior, of ethics and sustainability.”

The market has the power to move materials, goods and services from areas of plenty to those of scarcity. The problem is that the market is not responding to water scarcity, in part because crops are grown where there is no water. For example, in Brazil, areas that once were rainforest now grow 2.4 crops annually for export to China. “They’re exporting de facto water to China,” Matlock said.

Another example stems from the 1 billion people who lack access to water and the 2.4 billion who don’t have basic sanitation. Every day, waterborne diseases kill 5,400 children. “That’s the cost of this failure of technology – failure of civilizations,” Matlock said. “It’s a pretty dramatic cost.”

Global climate change will increase water scarcity in already water-stressed areas. Although agriculture no longer accounts for 90 percent of global water use, as it did in 1900, agricultural water use has increased fivefold since then. Competing with other sectors for limited water affects the many other uses that are not monetized, such as biodiversity. The Colorado and Ganges rivers offer examples of dramatic decreases in water discharge due to overallocation. Peak flows have not changed, but critical base flows have dropped considerably over time. “It’s hard to have a functional, viable aquatic ecosystem without the aquatic,” Matlock said.

Rice, which accounts for 15 percent of human water use, presents another problem. But improvement is possible, Matlock said.

Human Dimensions of Water for Food Production

Anheuser-Busch InBev, for example, achieved 4.7 percent per-unit reductions in rice culture, saving 3.5 billion liters of water in five years.

Water intake is only one issue; equally important is water effluent. From an ecological standpoint, given grossly limited incentive funding, Matlock believes profitable production practices should not be incentivized. “If you already have an incentive for conserving water − reducing soil erosion − then we don’t need to give you more money to do that which you ought to be doing anyway, because the marketplace will weed you out if you don’t perform,” he said. “It’s the things that we don’t incentivize, like preservation of riparian zones, that we should perhaps be incentivizing with our limited resources.”

The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System offers an example of the interconnectedness of agriculture effluent and environmental harm. Pollutants, particularly sediment and nutrients carried downstream from plantations to the Caribbean Sea, have the equivalent effect of a 10-degree temperature change, bleaching the coral reefs.

Impacts that are acceptable with 6.7 billion people will not be with 9 billion, Matlock concluded. If management happens only to things that are measured, and not everything can be measured, which metrics are important and how can they be incentivized? “We have to shift our thinking from maximizing any one variable or metric to optimizing several key ones.”