Why is Arizona using precious water to grow alfalfa for Saudi Arabia?

On a national level, the US has a relatively secure supply of freshwater and is actually a net exporter of virtual water due to its huge agricultural exports. This virtual water trade, too, has many facets: US consumption is responsible for exporting scarce virtual water from drier countries like Egypt, where the thirsty cotton that could end up in American bed sheets grows. Although Egypt faces water shortages, it is also a net exporter of virtual water, with cotton, fruits and vegetables being shipped to Japan, Europe, the US and yes Saudi Arabia, which receives 16 percent of Egypt’s virtual water exports. Perhaps it is understandable that Egyptians would ship scarce water to make money, rather than restricting agricultural exports to conserve household water or drinking water. The Egyptian case fits the notion that water “flows uphill to money”: With every doubling of per capita income, a nation increases its imports of fresh surface and groundwater — embedded in other products — according to a 2016 study. by 86 percent. To make up for the water scarcity, Egypt plans to build new desalination plants – which use energy to produce water to enable food production.

The water-food-energy nexus has long been an issue for scientists. But climate change, accelerated resource consumption, and globalization are making it clear to all — and making it much more difficult to ignore the waste of certain tradeoffs. If people didn’t use more than three-quarters of the world’s arable land to feed animals, which, for example, provide just 18 percent of the world’s calories and 37 percent of the world’s protein, 8 billion people would find it easier to live well this planet. And while irritation at the Saudis importing cow feed has publicized the water-food-energy nexus in Arizona, it’s not just the international water trade or the meat industry that needs scrutinizing. Over 51 million acres of American land are used to grow corn and soy for biofuels — more land than all other forms of energy combined — and these crops also need water.

When decisions have to be made in times of climate change, efficiency speaks for itself: plant-based meat or meat from the laboratory instead of cow steaks; wind turbines instead of corn for ethanol; American houses instead of Saudi milk.


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