26 Jan 2009

Missing the Point

This story (via DW) shows how the right diagnosis can come with the wrong treatment:
The world is in danger of running out of "sustainably managed water", according to Peter Gleick, the president of the Pacific Institute and a leading authority on global freshwater resources.


A key element to tackling the crisis, say experts, is to increase the public understanding of the individual water content of everyday items.
Yes, we are running out of cheap water. No, the solution is not educating people on the water content of a glass of orange juice.

I don't care how much water it took to make my OJ; I don't care where it came from; I don't care who squeezed the fruit; and I don't care about the companies that conveyed the juice from somewhere to the market where I bought it.

What I do care about is the quality of the juice, and -- holding quality constant -- the price of that juice.

Now I may be an exception, but it's more likely that I am typical in my beliefs. What is very unlikely is that consumers will go to the market and shop for food based on price, quality, sustainability, water footprint, carbon footprint, vegetarian constant, harvest labor standards, locality, etc.

What most people shop for is food that they want to eat (taste), that fits within their menu (complementarity, culture and convenience), that looks good ("nutrition"), and that fits within their budget (price price price!).

There are, of course, a minority (<10% but perhaps a larger share among readers of this blog) who DO factor water footprints, etc. into their shopping decisions, but this minority is inconsequential in terms of market forces AND in terms of changing others' decision making. (It they were consequential, the organic and vegetarian movements would have dominated years ago...)

So what's to be done about the water content of food to make people understand that water is no longer cheap? I hate to say it, and it sounds like a tautology, but the price of food should rise to reflect the water intensity of the food. Duh.

Bottom Line: Prices make it easy for people to compare actions and make the "right" decision. Water prices should rise to reflect scarcity, and food prices will duly follow.