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The Thirsty Business of Agriculture

More than 80% of the nation’s freshwater is used for agriculture. In California, the source of over half of America’s fruits and vegetables, surface and groundwater is constrained due to ongoing drought, competing water demands and aquifer depletion. Portions of the High Plains’ Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies 30% of groundwater irrigation for America’s crops, are projected to fail in as little as 25 years, yet investment in thirstier crops is on the rise.

CropsMore than 80% of the nation’s freshwater is used for agriculture. In California, the source of over half of America’s fruits and vegetables, surface and groundwater is constrained due to ongoing drought, competing water demands and aquifer depletion. Portions of the High Plains Ogallala aquifer, which supplies 30% of groundwater irrigation for America’s crops, are projected to fail in as little as 25 years, yet investment in thirstier crops is on the rise.

Agriculture can also damage water quality. Across the Midwest, nitrogen and phosphorus linked to excessive fertilizer use are polluting the Mississippi River and its tributaries, damaging fisheries, and contributing to the Gulf of Mexico’s massive oxygen-depleted “dead zone.”

Many of these challenges are complex and longstanding. At Ceres, we believe that ultimate reform of the public policy institutions and market drivers that shape our agricultural production system requires a fundamental shift in how food, agribusiness, and ethanol companies view their own interests, risks and responsibilities as it relates to the sustainability of U.S. agriculture.

That’s why our efforts focus on leveraging market-based mechanisms and buyer influence to improve the water impacts of farming. Through their massive purchasing power, the companies that buy, process and sell the food we eat have the power to raise the bar for sustainable water use in farming. Some companies, including Ceres’ network members Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and General Mills, are already beginning to do so. But many more companies must join them in incentivizing farmers to adopt water-friendly practices and working to protect our agriculture and water resources for the long-term.

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Meet the Expert

Brooke Barton
Director, Water Program

Brooke BartonBrooke leads Ceres’ water program, directing the organization’s research and corporate and investor engagement on the risks and opportunities related to growing water scarcity. She is the co-author of The Ceres Aqua Gauge: A Framework for 21st Century Water Risk Management. Brooke works with Ceres company members in the food and beverage sector, advising them on sustainability strategy and reporting, and coordinating dialogues between companies and their investor, NGO and labor union stakeholders.

Learn more about Brooke