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Waste Reduction

The future of your food will be produced with wastewater

Recycling water is a necessity in a world where water is becoming increasingly scarce. Inevitably, this will mean that we’ll have to use wastewater in order to grow the food needed. Will we ever be comfortable with using wastewater to produce food?

This is already happening, but there is more that can be done to protect communities from the dangers associated with using untreated wastewater.

Wastewater is used for food production primarily to manage water shortages and costs. The exponential population growth and climate change have severely compromised the availability of water in many regions, from the Middle East to Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Local communities must find urgent solutions to the increasing problem of water scarcity.

Waste water, if used correctly, can be a valuable source of nutrients that will help plants grow and replace mineral fertilizers. It should only be used in agriculture after it has been treated. In many parts of the world, the reality is very different.

Agricultural and water policies have not adequately addressed the inherent dangers of using untreated wastewater for irrigation. In sewage, you can find hazardous materials such as heavy metals, organic pollutants, pathogens, or antimicrobial-resistant bacteria. They accumulate in soils and crops, and then pass through the food chain.

Why do so many farmers continue to use untreated wastewater as irrigation when there is ample evidence that it poses a threat to the health of humans and the environment?

The use of waste water in developing countries is not only free, but also has a number of advantages. Farmers use the water for irrigation without taking precautions to prevent public health risks.

Farmers will increasingly use wastewater to irrigate their fields due to the scarcity of water. Siegfried Modola/Reuters

About 10% of the world’s food is produced by this practice. The true extent of wastewater used for illegal agriculture is not known.

The Mezquital valley in Mexico illustrates these issues perfectly. Farmers in the valley have used untreated wastewater originating from Mexico City as irrigation due to rapid urbanization and inadequate treatment. This practice has been used to grow crops with low production costs for more than 100 years.

These benefits are at the expense of the well-being of the populace. Water contaminated with sewage has caused severe cancer and gastrointestinal diseases in local communities. Especially vulnerable are infants, young children, and pregnant women. Also, people with HIV/AIDS, elderly people, and those whose immune system is compromised.

The highest rate of kidney cancer and Giardia infection in children are not coincidental.

Since the early 1900s, farmers in Mezquital have used waste water. AlextorrejCC BY-SA

The only way to reduce water pollution and preserve nutrients is by developing eco-friendly sanitation strategies. Since 1999, local wastewater plants and new wetland construction have been completed with satisfactory results for the water quality. The people of the valley remain skeptical of the benefits of wastewater treatment.

Even advanced technologies for waste-water treatment cannot address all risks, as the experience of industrialized nations has shown. It is well known that conventional waste-water treatments cannot deal with the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and emerging pollutants.

It is not necessary to mention that these contaminants, even in low concentrations, pose a serious threat to the health of humans. To keep our communities safe, we need to use technologies and structured monitoring.

The food of tomorrow will inevitably be produced using wastewater. The Mezquital Valley and other local communities can only do so little to protect themselves. Government policies and regulations must be evaluated in conjunction with the scientific evidence of the dangers that wastewater poses to human health. Safe use of waste in agriculture can only be achieved when the water-scarce environment is combined with scientific evidence.

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Jane S. King

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