Sustainable Water and Food Security

This is part of our Campus Spotlight on the Global Water Initiative at the University of Virginia.


Description: Since the 1960’s the human population has been increasing by one billion every 12-14 years and is projected to reach 9.5 billion by 2050. More people will require more food and water while the increasing affluence in emergent economies will further enhance human appropriation of natural resources. Intensification of agricultural production for food, energy or other industrial uses can lead to land degradation and loss of land suitable for crop or livestock production. How can we feed the planet while preserving the environment? In this class we will study basic principles of environmental sustainability from the perspective of water and food security, and apply them to human use of land and land based resources. An analysis of major mechanisms of land degradation and of the major technological advances that are expected to burst food production worldwide will be used as the basis for a discussion on the extent to which the Earth can sustainably feed humanity.

Goals: The main goals of the class are (1) to stimulate critical thinking about some of the major issues mankind will have to face in the next 50 years; (2) to expose the class to current research literature and learn how to use your general knowledge and skills to become informed and aware citizens; and (3) to offer a forum for the discussion of complex questions that do not necessarily have simple or right answers. Moreover, the course will offer the opportunity to establish important connections between the environmental sciences (the overall focus of this seminar) and other Arts & Science disciplines.

How does it work? Every week we will discuss in class a number of readings that I assign and post on the class website. Once a week I will lecture or lead the discussion of the class readings. In our other class meeting the discussion will be led by a team of four students. We will do this for 10-11 weeks. At the end of the semester we will have short presentations of term papers. The final version of the term paper is due on the last day of class.

Course Contents 

Week 1. Introduction. The challenge of feeding the planet. The water-food nexus.

Week 2: Sustainability. Definition of water security, food security, and sustainability. Weak and strong sustainability. Energy security: dependence on fossil fuels. Population growth. Demographic trends and future projections. Population and resources. Malthus’ theory. The role of new technological advances. The relationship between food and people. Demographic transition.

Week 3: Agricultural production. What is required to grow crops? Land, water, nutrients. The green revolution. Yield gap. Harvest gap. Gender gap. Intensification vs Agricultural expansion. “Sustainable intensification”. The effect of climate change. How many people can the planet feed?

Week 4: Environmental impacts. Land use change, deforestation and land degradation. Forest transition. Land governance. Environmental drivers of collapse of past civilizations.

Week 5: Globalization. Effect of trade on food systems. Economic drivers of trade dependency. Recent history of food trade. Virtual water, land, nitrogen. Footprints and their internal/external components. Ecological unequal exchange. Trade and food shocks. Export bans. Human displacement of land use. Exportation of environmental impacts. Land use change and unintended consequences of environmental policies.

Week 6: Water. The water cycle. Water use for agriculture. Irrigation systems. Groundwater depletion, Sustainable water use. Water security. Water infrastructure. Large-scale water projects. Water and agricultural development. Water and conflict or cooperation?

Week 7: Meat consumption. Livestock production and the demand for meat and other animal products. Livestock revolution. Trends in human diets. Feed-fed vs rangeland production. Fish consumption. Collapse of capture marine fisheries? Aquaculture.

Week 8: Biofuels & food waste. Biofuels. Bioethanol and biodiesel. Biofuel crops. Geographic distribution of biofuel crop production. Recent trends and future projections. Environmental impacts. Food waste and food stocks. Waste in storage, processing, distribution and “at home”. Food stocks.

Week 9: Famine and deprivation. Nutritional aspects of food security. Analysis of recent food crises. The effect of food availability, food price volatility, conflicts, institutions and norms of resource governance. Entitlement regimes and access to food. Relief programs. Food reserves.

Week 10: Large scale land acquisitions. Land grabbing. Large scale land acquisitions for agriculture. Drivers and environmental and societal impacts. Where does it happen? “Green grabbing”. “Water grabbing”. Impact on food security and the environment. Responsible investment in agriculture.

Week 11: Farming systems. Small-scale/subsistence vs large-scale commercial farming. Organic or conventional agriculture? Cash crops vs staple crops. Monocultures. Industrialization of farming systems. Sustainable agriculture. Can sustainable agriculture feed humanity?

Week 12: New paradigms of sustainability. Simple models of sustainability. Societal metabolism. Placing a price tag on Nature and the notion of ecosystem services. Commodification of environmental goods and services.

Week 13: Solutions to the water and food crises. 

Week 14. Term Paper presentation 



Every student will enroll in either the Tuesday or Thursday Lab. Each Lab section will meet once a week. During these lab meetings students will work with the graduate student instructor (GSI) on the development of their Term Paper. Students will self-assemble in teams and each team will write a different term paper which will be due on April 15th, 2018. A tentative list of research topic will be provided on the first day of class. Teams can also suggest a topic through bCourses by writing a proposal with length ranging between one paragraph to one page. Term paper proposals should explain why the team will work effectively together, briefly describe the focus and rationale of the paper and its significance. Moreover, the team should explain what is unique and original and include a brief description of what you think you can contribute if you suggest a topic. Suggested topic should be relevant to the course material, with a broad impact. If approved by the instructors, your team will be allowed to work together on that topic.



These are syllabi of water courses or courses with significant water content from colleagues affiliated with the Global Water Initiative at the University of Virginia.

Photo: Water sprinklers irrigating a field | Shutterstock
Published on December 11, 2018.


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