March 29, 2019 | By Dr. David Zilberman

Guest Commentary - The Importance of Water Quality in Agrifood Production

Editor's Note: As part of our new blog series, Uncharted Waters, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is inviting a diverse group of experts to explore topics related to water, nutrition, and agriculture in celebration of the 2019 Global Food Security Symposium.  Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and explore the report interactive now.

By Dr. David Zilberman, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics, UC Berkeley

There is a perception that obesity is becoming the major food problem in the world. This perception is valid to an extent. People being overweight reduces life expectancy and causes multiple diseases. People do have to control their calorie intake. But in an ongoing study we found that, for most countries, increase in average weight tends to increase life expectancy of a population. This means that there is still a huge problem of people being under-fed and in fact, we have to address two problems: The tendency to be overweight, and the large scale of malnourishment.

Therefore, there is a need to raise agricultural production and provide access to nutritional food to large sectors of the population. Which means that we also need to enhance irrigated agriculture, enhance its efficiency and increase productivity. So, technologies that enhance productivity and input use efficiency like modern irrigation technology and more precise application of inputs are useful as they increase supply of food, reduce prices and increase its availability. However, while we need more effective use of water in agriculture, especially given the constraints on water availability, climate change and population growth, it is crucial to improve water quality.
In many developing countries, farmers are frequently using sewage or contaminated water, mostly in its untreated form, for irrigation. Frequently this water is used to grow vegetables and other food that are supposed to enhance human health. But this effort can be counter productive, because they may lead to water borne diseases that may actually lead to weight loss, deny the body nutrition and de facto lead to malnourishment. Therefore, one need to develop agricultural systems that utilize water effectively, effectively allocate available water and also improve water quality to enhance human nutrition and health.
My ongoing study on nutrition and health also suggests that increased medical expenditure is a factor that contributes to enhanced life expectancy. It actually suggests that good nutrition and medical expenditure are substitutes. In many cases, medical expenditure does not necessarily improve life expectancy, but tends to correct some of the negative effects of poor nutrition - be it lack of food intake, intake of contaminants or being overweight. Thus underinvestment in food supply or in water quality improvement may lead to excessive medical expenditures. Hence, policy planning has to recognize the gains from improved nutrition and a clean environment. This means better water quantity and quality, can lead to overall saving in medical costs, gain of health and quality of life.
Today, designing enhanced agricultural and natural resource management systems that will allow healthier food and a cleaner environment require improved design of agrifood supply chains. Food production is a multi-product activity requiring high quality inputs, clean water, effective processing and shipment of agricultural products to the consumer, maintaining quality and reducing damage. Design of effective and well functioning agrifood supply chains is a major challenge as it has to incorporate consideration of credit availability, marketing efforts, technology adoption and product design. Supply chain design is, therefore, becoming a subject of frontier research in agricultural resource economics. 
On April 10 and 11, a workshop on the design of agrifood supply chains that enhance profitability, sustainability and human wellbeing will be held in Berkeley. Held for the fourth year in a row, “Innovation in Agrifood Supply Chains: Finance, Profitability, and Sustainability” will be a collaborative workshop, where participants, practitioners and global leaders of the agrifood sector, will interact with leading thinkers and diverse specialists from the private sector, civil society, and government. Organizations including Netafim, Mars, Guittard Chocolate, Revolution Foods, Advance Global Capital, Bonaventure Capital, University of Guelph, Innovative Genomics Institute, University of Michigan, among others, will be represented.  The program agenda can be seen here. I hope you can join us!





The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

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International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

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WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA


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