Water is life - water is food

Publicerad: 25 oktober 2023

Water is essential to life on Earth. It covers the majority of the Earth's surface, makes up over 50% of our bodies, produces our food, and supports livelihoods. What we eat, and how that food is produced all affect water and we need to stop taking it for granted. That is why, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) chose this year's theme for the World Food Day to be "Water is life, water is food. Leave no one behind." In connection to the celebration, we asked Professor Jennie Barron, researcher in agricultural water management how SLU contributes with new knowledge in this field.

For those who don't already know you, please tell us a bit about yourself.

I am a professor in agricultural water management at the Department of Soil and Environment at SLU. I work with water and soil management for rainfed and irrigated production systems, the climate resilience and water security in Sweden and in various parts of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

The theme for this year’s World Food Day, that was marked on 16 October, is Water is life, water is food. Leave no one behind. Why do you think the FAO has chosen this theme, and why is it important?

This year has seen extreme implications putting global food supply at risk, because of droughts and floods. Many global food baskets were at risk, with droughts in the beginning of the season, while others experienced floods. There were also some countries normally exporting putting on trade bans, to ensure national food security being met.

The second reason may be linked to the fact that the UN Decade for Action on Water (2018-2028) is half way through, and  that the UN Conference on Water was held in New York, to advance the international agenda on water resources for Agenda 2030 and for climate resilience. Major SDG goals on for example zero hunger (SDG2) and water and sanitation (SDG6) are pointing in the wrong directions. There has been a recognised overlay of regions with water insecurity and undernutrition, even though nowadays most people, in both rural and urban areas, buy most of their food. So even though the number of people severely food insecure being around 900 million (that is more than before the covid pandemic), 3 billion people are considered not able to afford a healthy nutritious diet. At the same time more than 1 billion are considered living in severely water insecure areas (FAO 20202), and these are largely overlapping.

How do researchers at SLU cooperate around water and food? Can you give an example of a research project and what you hope to achieve/have achieved?

At SLU, we have many different projects on agricultural water management support existing, and new developments of water resources for productive and climate resilient agriculture. And of course we have colleagues working more on the sustainability and environmental issues, that are needed for longterm viability.

One example is an FAO project called Nutrition sensitive agriculture water productivity.The project investigates the linkages between agricultural water management investments for smallholder farmers, and the nutritional outcomes. It explores the relations in irrigation development projects in six countries:  Benin, Niger, Mozambique, Rwanda, Jordan and Egypt. SLU supports in activities in Benin, Niger and Mozambique, namely evidence based on the linkages between irrigation development, and outcomes for nutrition. We see that interestingly, in irrigation development there is high awareness of how to use water productively with other resources (ie  improved seeds, best use of organic and inorganic fertilisers), but still thesis does not always translate to nutritional outcomes of example high food diversity index . We think therefore it is important that investments consider how to achieve this as part of agricultural technology investment projects, to also reach out for expertise and awareness. 

Other research initiatives address water management and soil management to maximise rainfall use, so rainfed systems can produce more. This can in some cases involve new crops and crop rotations, such as soy in maize as SLU and partners do in the Leg4Dev. It is interesting to see how soy has been picked up as a smallholder farmer crop, because there are new links to market and farmers can make a decent income, even in rainfed systems, whilst trying to enhance soil nutrients . Soy is used as a substitute for animal source proteins, in the region both for human and animals.

Finally, we would like to ask you how can we all contribute in creating a water and food secure world?

As researcher or student at SLU, new knowledge and expertise is very much needed, especially as water resources become more scarce and agricultural produce nutrition is changing in many crops due to climate change.

Farmers also need new knowledge and technologies to keep producing, both sustainably and water efficient, at the field and in the landscape.  ´There are also many new tools that can help, and these need to be adapted for the local conditions and the users/farmers/extension services, so that crops are both water productive in rainfed and irrigation systems, and provide income and nutrition to consumers. It is a complex chain frorm the field with soil and water crop management to the fork.

Thank you for your thoughtful insights Jennie and good luck with your ongoing and future research!


Jennie Barron
Professor vid Institutionen för mark och miljö, 018-671578