Tim Groser to FedFarmers: Water is the key

By Daniel Collins 04/11/2009

New Zealand doesn’t export milk and beef, or even grass. It exports water. This is how Tim Groser sees NZ’s agricultural relationship with the world. A country well-off in terms of water is well-prepared to feed a swelling global population.

Tim Grosner wears many hats, but they are all connected: Minster of Trade, Minister of Conservation, Associate Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Associate Minister for Climate Change Issues.

International affairs are increasingly centered around climate change these days. Conservation of native species is hampered by, among other things, resource extraction and climate change. While trade provides the demand for this extraction and a substantial portion of the causes of climate change.

Today, wearing all of these hats, he spoke to the Federated Farmers. He delivered several messages, but his remarks on water caught my eye.

Groser said:

… we need to understand the crucial link between agriculture production and water. I know that is obvious to you as farmers, but I wonder how many New Zealanders understand the intensity of the linkage between water and agriculture.

Indeed. How much water does agriculture use? How can the water be used more effectively? What are the impacts of this water use? How do agricultural goals trade-off with other economic, social and environmental goals?

Grosner gave a nod to virtual water, but he said little about the implications or policy directions.

The water intensity of milk and beef production is massive. I have seen estimates that it takes 800 litres of water to produce one litre of milk; it takes a thousand litres of water to produce a kilogram of beef. I imagine the average conversion ratio for sheepmeat would be of the same order of magnitude.

Water, ladies and gentlemen, is what we have in abundance. We only use, I understand, about 5% of the water that falls on NZ land. There is a whole domestic policy agenda that flows from that observation of course – but I will stick to the international dimensions today.

Twenty years ago, I used to say, metaphorically, NZ was in effect a ‘grass exporter’. That is not the metaphor I use today. Today I say NZ is a virtual water exporter. I do not see how China, with 24% of the world’s population, 9% of the world’s arable land and massive problems with water can feed its increasingly sophisticated and growing middle class with the high quality foodstuffs, wine and other products they will demand.

Groser is likely aware of NZ farmers’ general distaste for virtual water. Virtual water accounting does pose a threat to NZ exports. It also requires farmers to record their water use, as if it is not entirely theirs. Neither of these issues are looked kindly upon. But he understands that international consumers are thinking about how much water is used to produce the products they buy.

What I hope Tim Groser also understands is that virtual water analysis has its uses, but in terms of water resource sustainability, it is actually only one piece of the puzzle. I would hope international consumers also understand this, but I know many don’t.

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