Beyond the water and carbon footprint: The pressing issue of food and water security

29 May 2017

In this article, the authors argue that the pressing challenge in the ABPU region, comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, is neither the water nor carbon footprint generated by food exports. Rather, the main problem is how to tackle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at the broad regional scale through sensible and coordinated land-use policies. The authors make the case for recognising the role that ABPU’s exports of food and virtual water can play in helping to alleviate mounting water and food demand in a global context of climate change and population growth. 


Humans have left a footprint on the planet over the course of their evolution, unfolding in waves of deeply transformative agricultural and industrial revolutions. As a result, global warming, climate change and water scarcity have emerged as three important impacted fields that indirectly affect the sustainability of the global food system. The critical role of food security in the context of climate change and water withdrawal deserves special attention. Making sense of the complex relationship between carbon (CF) and water (WF) footprints and food security is at the core of Group of Producing Countries from the Southern Cone (GPS) objectives.

Before proceeding, we should take into account that greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions from the rural sector in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay constituting the ABPU region represent less than 3 percent of world GHG emissions that today include all sectors of the global economy.

The Footprints of ABPU Food Exports

The issues of CF and WF are cause for growing concern among food-exporting countries in the ABPU region because of the relevant role that they play in global water and food security. Accepting that food security involves not only food availability but also the economic and logistic access to food, it is necessary to put into context the intersection of water use, carbon emission and food security in the ABPU region and propose strategic ways to tackle the issue.

When people focus their attention on footprints only, part of the story is overlooked. Two perspectives are useful to understand the problem: one small and one big.

On the one hand, the narrow picture strictly refers to CF and WF. The CF and the WF seem to be highly correlated and, as recent GPS research demonstrates, animal (e.g. meat and milk) and processed products (e.g. bread, oilseeds and biofuels) show a higher footprint than primary and non-processed products like grains, vegetables, fruits and so on.

Figure 1. Relationship between the WF and CF of plant, animal and processed products.

Source: The authors’ own elaboration from Fritsche and Eberle (2009); Mekonnen and Hoekstra (2012); Heller and Keoleian (2014).

Several questions arise when we look ahead. Are the CF and WF of exported foods in the ABPU region a threat to the global environment? Are those exports destabilising the global carbon and water balance? Would the imposition of trade sanctions on the region to curb this issue be justified? Or are regional footprints of food exports a false dilemma and thus any potential sanctions a demonstration of commercial myopia? 

The bigger picture, on the other hand, shows that the water embedded in food and the carbon released throughout the food chain in ABPU exporting countries are negligible in practical terms. In the figure below, the CF and WF of the region’s exported foods represent only 2.7 percent and 0.3 percent of the total water consumption and carbon emissions of global agriculture respectively. Thus, putting too much attention on the footprints of food exports in the ABPU region, without any meaningful impact on the global balance of water and carbon, may prove irrelevant.

Figure 2. The footprint of ABPU food exports on the balance of water and carbon assessed in terms of its global implications.


Source: The authors’ own elaboration from Mekonnen and Hoekstra (2012) and FAO (2016).

How do water and carbon size up from an environmental perspective? Although it is widely accepted that carbon emissions are inherently global in nature because of global warming, water use tends to be seen as a local challenge. However, the water used to produce and export food to food- and water-scarce countries goes beyond the local scale. The conversion of natural lands into grazing lands and croplands on a global scale implies that large amounts of water that in the past were used to support biodiversity and the provision of key ecosystem regulating services (e.g. carbon sequestration) are today used to produce food. Thus, given that water and carbon are linked, both have global implications. Consequently, water and carbon footprints are meaningful in a globally encompassing food-trade context, and correspondingly both jointly must be key pieces in any mitigation and adaptation policy.

What are the implications of water and carbon footprints in terms of policy and trade? If the carbon footprint of food exports is seen as global debt that can potentially lead to trade restrictions, the water footprint should be seen an ecological credit of food-exporting countries because the virtual water in trading food contributes to ameliorating water-scarcity in food-importing countries. To avoid unjust treatments, this view should deserve consideration in future WTO rules.

Focus on GHG emissions

The pressing challenge in ABPU is neither the water nor carbon footprint generated by food exports. The main problem is how to tackle GHG emissions at the broad regional scale (e.g. in the Mercosur region) through sensible and coordinated land-use policies. Problems related to carbon emission and water use in agriculture should be resolved on broad-scale basis beyond the inconsequential small-scale footprint view.

To address the broad-scale problem, mitigation efforts should be focused on three main sources of emissions for the rural sector: deforestation, cattle production and crop operations. Carbon emissions can be mitigated by: (i) decreasing deforestation rates; (ii) increasing the carbon sequestration in the root system of grasslands and savannas; (iii) improving animal genetics and reproductive performance; (iv) reducing the time required by animals to reach the slaughter weight; and (v) incorporating high-tech “precision farming” in crop cultivation, linking the use of inputs and cropping operations with satellite images and modern tools of information technology.

Due to considerable land and renewable water availability in the region, ABPU plays today   and will continue to play in future an increasingly strategic role in global food and water security by exporting food and virtual water to food- and water-scarce countries. Beyond the short-sighted view on CF and WF, it should be recognised that ABPU’s exports of food and virtual water can help to alleviate mounting water and food demand in a global context of climate change and population growth.


Ernesto F. Viglizzo is Environmental Advisor at GPS; Senior Researcher at CONICET (Argentina).

M. Florencia Ricard carries out research activities at GPS and is a Postdoctoral Fellow at CONICET (Argentina) in the field of agricultural and environmental sciences.