For the past 10 years, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has been convening key stakeholders from the public, private and NGO sectors at their annual Global Food Security Symposium. This year, the meeting in Washington, DC on March 20th and 21st coincided with the release of the Council’s latest report, which was the theme of the 2019 symposium: From Scarcity to Security: Managing Water for a Nutritious Food Future. At the opening session, the report author and co-chairs noted the critical nature of this current point in time given growing populations, growing demand for food, and an increasingly variable climate. In particular, the speakers illuminated that demand for water is intensifying globally, with farmers facing increasing competition for the natural resource.

Symposium speakers discussed the undeniable and compounding cycle of how climate change endangers the water supply, leading to disrupted agricultural outputs, which threatens food and nutrition security. As Beth Dunford from USAID stated in the following session, “there is no water without food, and no food without water.” Today, 2.4 billion people live without access to clean water for sanitation and nourishment, with that number expected to grow based on current projections. While agriculture accounts for 71% of water use, the growth of industry and domestic water consumption has been rapid. So how are farmers and food companies responding to the challenge of rising water scarcity? Panelists addressing this question acknowledged that every sector needs to be involved in water conservation and preservation efforts as it’s a multi-faceted issue that can negatively impact us all. A few efforts highlighted included: a new initiative by Cargill and Heifer International that aims to improve the nutrition status and economic livelihood of 100 million people by 2030 by working with female smallholder farmers in developing countries to increase their nutrition knowledge, provide resources to expand poultry and egg production, and give them the opportunity to sell their products in local markets to generate a living wage. Additionally, the Access to Nutrition Index benchmarking initiative that ranks the world’s largest food manufacturers on their commitments to nutrition and sustainability was hailed as an important step in creating accountability and driving collective action on the part of the private sector.

In summary, the Council’s 2019 report outlines a number of specific strategies to enhance water, food, and nutrition security: from shifting diets and diversifying agriculture to essentially reduce water demand, to incentivizing efficient water consumption through specific water use and pollution policies, to calling on Congress and the current administration to catalyze positive action through specific programmatic and investment opportunities. And while the situation today appears dire, one thing was clear from listening to the symposium speakers and reading the report: “with thoughtful planning and a commitment to sustainability, it will be possible to meet the water and food demands of current generations – while laying the groundwork for a nourishing food system in the future.”