Water is the chief building block of life. Without it, crops wither away and civilizations crumble. While total arable land, yield per acre and other equivalent measures have been standard gauges for food producing capacity since the days of Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, yield per unit of water may one day become the prime productivity yardstick. To some degree, it's already taking place in water-strapped California and some water-poor nations.

Of the world's water reserves, a mere 3 percent is freshwater. That portion shrinks even further when you consider that 83 percent of all freshwater is frozen in glaciers and snow packs. That leaves just 0.5 percent from aquifers, freshwater lakes, rivers, reservoirs or rainfall available to people, plants and animals.

That freshwater is far from evenly distributed around the planet. Fewer than 10 countries possess 60 percent of the supply - Brazil, Russia, China, Canada, Indonesia, the U.S., India, Columbia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It's these countries that hold some of the greatest hope in feeding the world's growing masses.

Those with full stomachs and those with empty stomachs vote differently on how to divvy up precious freshwater resources. High-income, water-rich nations such as Canada and the U.S. consume about 59 percent of freshwater for industrial purposes, 11 percent for domestic reasons and 30 percent for agriculture. Meanwhile, low-income, food scarce, developing nations allocate 82 percent of water for agriculture, 10 percent for industrial use and 8 percent for domestic causes.

While Californians living in the world's most diverse food-producing region bicker about diverting water to cities, saving wildlife or feeding people, most other nations would have ended the debate early on by allocating water for agriculture . . . to feed the people. Unfortunately, too many U.S. citizens in the world's most blessed nation do not see it that way. As a result, full stomachs will decide which of California's crops will get watered and which will go unwatered, or even unplanted.

The world's water use has always been complex and will grow more complicated over time as we add 2 billion souls to our planet by 2050. While Americans squabble about washing cars, watering lawns, preserving wildlife or nourishing crops, the world's hungry will look on us in dismay until we get our priorities in the proper order. And part of that order is placing the highest value for water on feeding people. That is the truly sustainable and responsible choice.

This editorial appears on page 374 of the May 25, 2015 issue of Hoard's Dairyman.

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