Water scarcity is a truly global problem, affecting each continent and a total of 2.8bn people across the world. By 2025, 15% of the global population will not have access to sufficient water resources.
Water usage is expected to grow by 40% in the coming 20 years as demand grows from industry and agriculture, driven by accelerating population growth and increased urbanisation.
Insufficient water supply affects the health of children disproportionally, as a decrease in food and nutrient intake can lead to problems with growth and an individual’s immune system.
A shortage of water can lead to communities relying on poorly sanitised water, allowing infections that can cause diarrhoea and intestinal parasites. Both can be deadly in areas without access to quality healthcare.
A family in Somalia collects their daily water allowance. Image: Oxfam International/Flickr
But it is not only a scarcity of clean drinking water that presents a global health challenge – the agriculture industry relies on an increasing supply of fresh water for food production. It is estimated that the number of crops such as wheat, rice, and maize will decrease by 43% by the end of the 21st century.
Agriculture accounts for 70% of the world’s water use, and is constantly competing with domestic and industrial uses for an already dwindling water supply. The World Wide Fund for Nature claims that many countries, such as the US, China, and India, have already reached their renewable water resource limits.
Agriculture is responsible for 70% of the world’s water usage.
The most popular current desalination methods – the process by which salt and minerals are removed from water – are thermal and membrane desalination. Both are energy-intensive and often not cost-efficient for developing countries, which are the most likely to struggle with poor water sanitation and shortages.
As a result, both the healthcare and agricultural industries are desperately searching for a solution.
A graphene-oxide membrane is at the forefront of new water filtration techniques. Image: University of Manchester
In Manchester, UK, the development of graphene – a material comprised of a single-layer of carbon in a honeycomb structure – is revolutionising modern membrane desalination and water filtration techniques.
An ultra-thin graphene-oxide membrane developed at the University of Manchester is not only able to separate water and salt – proving to be completely impermeable to all solvents but water – but other compounds as well.
A reverse osmosis desalination plant. Image: James Grellier/Wikimedia Commons
The technology – called organic solvent nanofiltration – separates organic compounds by charge and can differentiate solvents by the nanometre. The group tested the membranes using alcohol, such as whisky and cognac, and various dyes with successful results.
‘The developed membranes are not only useful for filtering alcohol, but the precise sieve size and high flux open new opportunities to separate molecules from different organic solvents for chemical and pharmaceutical industries,’ said Rahul Nair, team leader at the National Graphene Institute and Professor of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science at the University of Manchester.
‘This development is particularly important because most of the existing polymer-based membranes are unstable in organic solvents, whereas the developed graphene-oxide membrane is highly stable.’
Graphene: Membranes and their practical applications. Video: The University of Manchester - The home of graphene
The graphene-oxide membrane is made up of sheets that are stacked in a way that creates pinholes connected by graphene nanochannels. The structure forms an atomic-scale sieve allowing the flow of solvents through the membrane.
Not only is the technology able to filter smaller molecules than existing filtration techniques – it also improves filtration efficiency by increasing the solvent flow rate.
‘Chemical separation is all about energy, with various chemical separation processes consuming about half of industrial energy usage,’ said Prof Nair. ‘Any new efficient separation process will minimise the consumption of energy, which is in high demand now.’
Combatting malnutrition in all its forms – overweight and obesity as well as undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies – is a global problem.
The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) recently published a report calling for urgent action on food and nutrition security: this action will need to include consideration of the options for changing European diets to mitigate climate change, conferring co-benefits for health.
The European Commission estimates 51.6% of the EU’s population is overweight. Image: Tony Alter/Flickr
EASAC brings together EU member states’ national science academies with the aim of offering evidence-based advice to European policy makers. EASAC provides a means for the collective voice of European science to be heard and its recent report is part of a global project led by the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP).
The analysis and recommendations for Europe are accompanied by parallel activities focusing on Africa, Asia and the Americas. The IAP report will be published later in 2018.
EASAC recommendations will incorporate global challenges and needs, not just those in Europe. Image: Pixabay
In the EASAC report we emphasise that research and innovation are central to finding solutions. We recommend being more ambitious in identifying and using scientific opportunities: How can the current evidence base shape understanding of both supply- and demand-side challenges? And how should the research agenda be defined, including basic research, to fill knowledge gaps?
Climate change will have negative impacts on food systems, necessitating the introduction of climate-smart agriculture such as the adoption of plant breeding innovations to cope with drought.
Climate-Smart Agriculture in Action. Video: Farming First
Agriculture and current diets also contribute significantly to climate change. Mitigating this contribution depends on land-sparing and agronomic management practices together with efforts to influence consumer behaviours associated with excessive greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, including the over-consumption of calories and meat.
Among the core findings in our report is that food consumption will need to change to improve consumer health. It is important to explore individual responsiveness to nutrition and the links to health, and to consider the particular needs of vulnerable groups.
High meat production has been linked to increasing carbon emissions. Image: Pixabay
As part of the changes to food consumption patterns, a decrease in the consumption of animal protein could be important for both health and the environment but, globally, more research is needed to clarify these relationships and to measure sustainability related to consumption of healthy diets. We also call for policy makers to introduce incentives for affordable nutrition.
Agriculture has significant impacts on the environment. We call for the revamp of the Common Agricultural Policy to focus on innovation rather than subsidies, in order to play a key role in European competitiveness and the bioeconomy.
Alternatives to traditional forms of animal protein include food from the oceans, laboratory-grown meat and insects. Research is needed to understand and inform consumer attitudes to innovative food and diets.
Also, research objectives for the next generation of biofuels should include examining the potential of cellulosic raw materials. Further ahead, energy research must continue to explore how to engineer systems with improved photosynthesis.
Biofuels are derived from common crops, including wheat, corn and sugar. Image: Public Domain Pictures
Europe should not stall on opportunities for innovation coming within range. Breakthroughs in genome editing and other genetic research are crucial to the future of agriculture. European policy makers must capitalise on these scientific advances.
For improved plant and animal breeding, it is important to protect and characterise wild gene pools and to continue sequencing and functional assessment to unveil the potential of genetic resources. Precision agriculture offers many opportunities to improve productivity with reduced environmental impact. Large data sets are vital to support innovation and prepare for risk and uncertainty.
Open-source automated precision farming | Rory Aronson | TEDxUCLA. Video: TEDx Talks
Underpinning all our recommendations is the recognition that research and innovation must be better integrated, across disciplines and the public and private sectors, in order to better understand the interfaces between health, nutrition, food and other ecosystem services.
EASAC emphasises that efforts to increase food systems’ efficiency should not focus on increasing agricultural productivity by ignoring environmental costs.