Securing Water and Food for a Growing Population – an MIT Priority

Securing Water and Food for a Growing Population – an MIT Priority

  • “California drought: Big water rate hikes considered by Bay Area agencies”
  • “Taps Start to Run Dry in Brazil’s Largest City”
  • “NY senators propose $800 million fix to leaky water pipes for places like Syracuse“
  • “What kills more women than AIDS and breast cancer? Dirty water”
  • “South Florida drinking water faces saltwater threat: Climate change could increase 'saltwater intrusion'”
  • “As Toxin Fears Grow, More Chinese Are Buying Imported Rice”
  • “Bananas under threat: Scientists 'incredibly concerned' for fate of banana as plagues and fungus infections spread”
  • “Global fish production: No more fish in the sea”

These are all actual news headlines, and they are becoming more common. In a world that is becoming more populated, more developed, and more urbanized, water and food systems in developing and developed countries alike are facing growing threats to their productivity, accessibility, and sustainability. Throw climate change into the equation, and challenges to the world’s food and water supplies become even more complex and unprecedented.

Ganges River bathing
People crowding to bathe in the Ganges River, Varanasi, India.

How will we provide food and clean drinking water to an estimated 9.6 billion people in 2050? Some of the statistics are daunting. Despite substantial gains in agricultural productivity over the past decades and even struggles with obesity in the developed world, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that over 800 million people in the world, or one in nine, currently suffer from hunger. A comparable number do not have access to clean and safe drinking water. The western U.S. is facing its own problems: in California, where 80% of the water is used for agriculture, a multi-year drought has left reservoirs as low as 11% of capacity, and the snowpack is at the lowest level on record. São Paolo, Brazil, a city of more than 20 million people, is facing similar challenges. Even in the developed world, food safety is not guaranteed: the CDC estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick and 3,000 die due to a food-borne illness. And on a global scale, agriculture has reshaped the face of our planet and already consumes 70% of the fresh water used by humankind, even as food demand is expected to increase an estimated 50 to 100% by 2050.

Yet in these difficult circumstances lies opportunity. Water shortages around the globe can drive improvements in efficiency by stimulating innovation in technology, system design, management, and policy. Cost and energy saving advances in water purification and desalination technologies can expand our otherwise-fixed renewable supply of fresh water. Much can also be done to improve food security in the developing world. Persistently low crop yields, as in Africa, can spur the development of low-cost and energy-efficient technologies for irrigation, fertilization, and post-harvest storage and transport. In industrialized countries, food waste statistics are startling – the USDA reported that in 2010 over 30% of the available US food supply went uneaten – but they also highlight the substantial opportunities to make our food distribution systems more efficient through the development of advanced technologies such as sensors, and through innovative business models. All of these advances can be extended by novel applications of supply chain management and the use of big data analytics to improve the safety of our food and water supplies. And biotechnology may offer alternatives to the current models of farming, fertilization, and food production.

MIT regards water and food as two of the primary challenges of the 21st century, and we are committed to using our expertise in science, engineering, urban design, and business innovation to pursue these and other opportunities to ensure future water and food security. We are combining our faculty’s strengths in innovation and interdisciplinary research with MIT’s ability to collaborate with partners around the world so as to tackle difficult regional problems in their local context. By developing scientific understanding, new technologies, effective policies, and business solutions, MIT’s efforts are aimed at a future in which the world’s water and food needs are met – met in both the developed and the developing world, and met in an environmentally sustainable way.