Center for Water Policy1, Vermont Law School2
Virtual Water and Food Security in the World's Largest Freshwater System: The Export of Virtual Water from the Great Lakes
Jenny Kehl, Ph.D. Director of the Center for Water Policy Endowed Chair of the School of Freshwater Sciences Kehl@uwm.edu
Melissa Scanlan Director of the Environmental Law Center Vermont Law School
As water scarcity increasingly affects food security, negotiations over water rights, allocations, and exports will become more contentious. The quantification is insufficient to prevent conflict, especially in times of scarcity. Legal mechanisms must be in place to address the emerging concept of virtual water, and to provide protection against inadvertently exporting the water commons via agricultural trade.
Virtual water is the total amount of water used to produce a product. Such water consumption has been coined "virtual," because the water use is hidden and embedded in the production of the product. For example, it takes approximately 132 gallons of water to produce one cup of rice, but this water is largely invisible to the rice consumer. The virtual water content of food needs to be properly accounted and regulated, due to the vast amount of water involved in food production.
The purpose of this article is to illuminate discussion of virtual water in food. We focus this analysis on the Great Lakes states because this is a significant agricultural region for the United States and there is an existing legal structure in place that governs the shared use of Great Lakes waters under the Great Lakes - St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact.
This article provides first of its kind calculations of the quantity of virtual water being exported from the Great Lakes region via agriculture. These data show that the Great Lakes region is a net exporter of virtual water through its agricultural production. We analyze these data in light of the existing legal framework for managing the waters of the Great Lakes Basin and discuss the potential for existing laws to address the net water loss in the Great Lakes region resulting from exports of virtual water through food production. Through this analysis we identify complex, and largely unanswered, questions for policymakers, and make normative recommendations for how the law should evolve to simultaneously promote sustainable water use and food security.
The analysis recently became one of the top ten most frequently downloaded papers on the Social Science Research Network open access resource. It has remained one of the top ten downloaded papers for over three weeks. We would be honored to have the opportunity to present this work and receive feedback the World Water Congress XV. Thank you for your consideration.
Jenny Kehl, Ph.D. Director of the Center for Water Policy Endowed Chair of the School of Freshwater Sciences Email: Kehl@uwm.edu Phone: 267-882-6110 Address: Jenny Kehl, 600 East Greenfield Avenue, Milwaukee, WI, 53204 USA